A bit of background- I’m a British Royal Navy FREAK. It all started when my parents started getting the Time-Life series about the seafarers. First, I got totally into pirates. (In fact, my mother still has an extremely violent story I wrote in the 4th grade about being captured and nearly boiled alive by Blackbeard). The next book in the series was Fighting Sail. Oh boy. I was completely hooked. Lord Nelson became my first and rather enduring crush. I still feel a bit mushy about him.
Unsurprisingly, this is one of my favorite series‘, ever. I read all of the completed books about ten years ago, and it’s time for another round. I’d already read the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester, which was entertaining, but in my opinion, far inferior to O’Brian’s work.
So, enough gushing for the moment. The Aubrey-Maturin series follows the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy captain, and his best friend- surgeon, naturalist and spy- Stephen Maturin. In Master and Commander, Aubrey receives his first command, a brig christened Sophie. He has also just met Maturin at a concert, where they nearly come to blows over Jack taking, shall we say, an overly active role in appreciating the music.
Jack has a warm and forgiving nature, however, so he and Stephen quickly bond over their shared love of music, and Jack soon invites him to fill the post of surgeon on the under-staffed Sophie. They proceed to gallivant all over the Med, blasting away with cannon, fighting with swords, playing violin/cello duets, taking prizes, and generally having a great time.
Finally, the Sophie is taken by a French ship, and Jack has to get through a court-martial- par for the course for the captain who’s lost his ship. He is exonerated, and the book ends on a happy note, preparing us for his imminent promotion to Post Captain, in Book 2.
What else can I say? These books are perfection. There is just about non-stop intrigue and action, but the characters are wonderfully developed and realistic. O’Brian doesn’t hold back on the naval jargon, which is at first bewildering (read Fighting Sail or The Wooden World beforehand or during), but really immerses you into life at sea. The language is so period-perfect, it’s hard to believe that O’Brian lived and wrote in the 20th century.
These books stand out in every way- as action-packed history, as great literature, and as a faithful depiction of the world at that time.
I should probably also mention the movie: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. I love it also, even though the plot only loosely follows that of the books. Russell Crowe is a perfect Jack Aubrey, and even though Bettany doesn’t fit the book’s physical description of Maturin, he inhabits the role wonderfully. Even if you’re not interested in the books, I highly recommend the movie.