Patrick O’Brian is arguably the third great British writer of historical novels in the 20th century, beside Mary Renault and Dorothy Dunnett. His chef-d’oeuvre is the Aubrey-Maturin series which runs to a massive twenty volumes plus one last, unfinished one; and I’m planning on reading the whole of it (although likely skipping the final one as that apparently was still a very rough draft when O’Brian died) in the next couple months. Well, more likely during the next two years, assuming I’ll manage one volume per month (as I’ll likely want to read other stuff, too). I had already started once and read the first four novels, but then was hospitalized for a while and somehow lost track of it; hopefully there won’t be any interruptions this time.
Master & Commander is the first in the series, and I think I read somewhere that it was not planned as such but rather as a standalone novel. Not that you’d necessarily notice, as Master & Commander begins (with its two protagonists meeting for the first time during a concert) and ends (with Jack Aubrey being acquitted by a court-martial for having lost his ship) rather randomly, and the novel itself is mostly episodic without a clear plot arc that would span from beginning to end – one has the feeling it could have started and stopped pretty much anywhere. Which was probably intentional, because Master & Commander presents itself like a slice of life from early 19th century navy life, and a large part of the novel’s (and, indeed, the whole series’) appeal lies in the immediacy of its approach, gripping the reader’s attention and holding it even through pages filled so densely with naval jargon as to be close to incomprehensible, but also (and with greater ease and charm) through vivid descriptions of life on sea on a British war ship, both the everyday routine and the heart-pounding battles and breathless races across the ocean, and not to forget (probably O’Brian’s greatest strength, and something I’ll have to return when writing about later volumes) through the portrayal of characters that are quirky but plausible, and deeply likeable in spite of their many faults.
O’Brian has not quite found his rhythm yet in Master & Commander – the pacing is still somewhat unsteady and has not quite the easy flow of later volumes, the character of Stephen Maturin is still somewhat underdeveloped, and he really is overdoing it with the naval terms – even native speakers seem to find those often impenetrable. In parts, this reads not so much like a novel but more like a non-fiction account, and a fairly dry one at that, and getting through those parts can be a slog. But Master & Commander sets the groundwork for what is to come, so anyone wanting to explore the series should definitely start here. And it’s not like this was a bad novel, it has many delightful moments; it just falls short compared to what is still to come.