So, I figure there are two kinds of people: those who like immaculately detailed nautical novels, and those who don't. I am 'meh' about them, which is probably why I've never gotten around to reading Moby Dick
. I love paintings of naval battles, but when it comes to reading many pages detailing the operations of a sailing vessel and the Royal Navy's rank hierarchy, I would rather skip to the story.
So, Patrick O'Brian, known for his historical and nautical accuracy, wrote about twenty of these Aubrey/Maturin novels apparently. I can see them as fine reading for those who really love the time period or reading about naval battles, but while the battles were thrilling enough, the story at times moved at the pace of an over-laden frigate with a weak breeze.
Jack Aubrey is a captain without a ship until he is given command of a sloop (a very small, low-end warship) and assigned escort duty. Unfortunately, the former captain, who got an upgrade to a better ship, took most of his crew with him. One of the first things we learn about the Royal Navy in the 19th century is that captains were often responsible for outfitting and crewing their ships with little financial support from the crown. In need of a ship's surgeon, among other things, Aubrey is lucky enough to encounter a physician in need of a job, a half-Irish Natural Philosopher named Stephen Maturin. Initially, Maturin's primary purpose is to have everything aboard ship explained to him, allowing O'Brian to dump exposition on the reader. However, Maturin has some secrets, one of them being that he was involved in an Irish uprising that went badly (as most Irish uprisings did). Despite this, he and Aubrey soon become good friends - surprisingly quickly, in fact.
The rest of the book is mostly a realistic depiction of life aboard a warship, long weeks of tedious routine interrupted by occasional bloody action. The officers and the common seamen are a rough lot, and this is the era of rum and floggings. Aubrey, as befits a protagonist at the beginning of his own series, pulls off a spectacular victory against a much larger Spanish ship with several times the guns and crew of the Sophie, but he promptly gets screwed over by a spiteful superior officer and is thus robbed of his rightful glory. He's then captured by a French admiral after another overwhelmingly one-side battle, but he and his crew are paroled back to Gibraltar, where he faces a court martial for losing his ship.
The historical details are great and Aubrey's naval encounters are described with plenty of action mixed with sea terms. He has narrow escapes, narrow victories, wins and losses, and we get to know him and his crew over the course of the book. However, the only characters who are memorable are Aubrey, Maturin, and an important secondary character, who dies in the final battle. They're also all rather same-ish. While the developing friendship between Aubrey and Maturin is rendered in many humorous and heartwarming scenes, Master and Commander
is otherwise not a particularly character-driven novel, and the story serves only to introduce us to Commander Aubrey and his ship.
So, if this is the kind of book you like, this is the kind of book you will like. I would not say I absolutely wouldn't read any more of these, but book one wasn't enough to hook me on the series.