Book Review: Master and Commander by O’Brian (4 Stars)

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

4 out of 5 stars

Read in March 2009

Warning: Spoilers

This is the first of twenty novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series where we meet Jack Aubrey, master and commander of the sloop Sophie and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon of the same vessel. Their friendship has a rocky start and seems perplexing to me. Stephen is a scientist and a naturalist, exceedingly curious about avians and reptiles, and agrees to embark as the Sophie’s surgeon with the understanding of furthering his research and studies. Jack Aubrey, on the other hand, has his sights set on attaining a promotion to post captain as quickly as possible. While he is at ease on the deck of his sloop, Jack often stumbles while ashore, committing social gaffes that inhibit his political prospects.

The Sophie is missing several sailors and a key officer when Jack is awarded her. The Admiralty assigns James Dillon as his lieutenant. Surprisingly, Stephen knows James from the United Irishmen, a rebel uprising they were both involved in. This shared background also causes tension and a point of honor issue for Dillon about midway through the tale. Dillon is forced to choose between loyalty to the Irish and loyalty to his captain and it very nearly tears him apart.

The first third or so of the book is devoted to getting the crew, officers and sloop in top running order. At first, the flood of nautical terms was nearly too much for this landlubber, but with the help of Wikipedia, I managed to make sense of them. By the end of the book, I was becoming quite enamored of them.

The Sophie is cruising around the Mediterranean intent on take prizes – other ships that are French or allied with French – and has a great run of luck initially. But Jack falls afoul of an Admiral thwarts Jack’s headlong rush to post captain. As a direct result of the Admiral’s severely limiting orders, Jack finally meets his match against three French ships-of-the-line. After throwing the guns overboard and all the stores in a vain attempt to out run the French ships, the Jack strikes the colors of the Sophie and surrenders her.

It’s almost anticlimactic after this point. Jack and his officers, including Stephen Maturin, are held as prisoners and are eventually sent to Gibralter for a prisoner exchange, after which Jack will face court-martial for losing his ship. The trial and the verdict are the ending of the novel.

The author claims to have taken many of the battles and engagements directly from the naval log entries from the Napoleonic period. Again a case of truth being strange or at least more interesting than fiction.

I enjoyed this nautical adventure. I can’t say that I was drawn to any of the characters – I didn’t feel their pain or anger or despair – but I did enjoy the ride.