Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Master and Commander begins English author Patrick O'Brian's lush and literary epic seafaring historical fiction series based on the career of a naval captain during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
Through out the entire series O'Brian delves into the themes of love, war and friendship. At the heart of M&C is the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Irish surgeon and naturalistic Stephen Maturin. When they meet at the book's outset - Aubrey a lieutenant without a ship, Maturin a doctor without a penny - they nearly kill one another, but fortune forgives all and these two entirely opposite individuals are brought together into an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship, one that at times tests boundaries, but also one that warms the reader's heart.
To fully enjoy these books you must cast your mind into that period, the very dawn on the 19th century, the Age of Sail, the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. As much of the story plays out upon ships serving the Royal Navy, English customs and manners are the rules of the game. Serving under the Englishman Aubrey and being Irish, Maturin and a fellow countryman bridle at this, but follow suit and guardedly hide their pasts to preserve their own skins.
At the beginning of the series Aubrey is the focal point. O'Brian fashioned him after real-life naval hero Admiral Thomas Cochrane. Brash, daring but not reckless, Cochrane made the perfect image from which to mould fictional heroes. Among other writers, C.S. Forester used Cochrane to create his much beloved Horatio Hornblower character. Though an admiral by the end of his career, Cochrane was not as widely known to the world outside of England after his own time (there's only so much room for the Nelsons and Wellingtons of the world), so his career could be mined for material, even mirrored in many cases, without the general reading public catching on a century or two later.
At first I hesitated to read O'Brian's work. I'd just read Forester's Hornblower series and I felt like O'Brian was merely treading upon his coattails. But Forester's work had left me wanting more and I'd also recently seen Peter Weir's movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," which I enjoyed, so while perusing books at a shop one day and coming across M&C I flipped it open and read a couple paragraphs. I was hooked. The writing flowed with an ease, brilliance and heart that Forester's more stoic prose lacked. O'Brian is called the Jane Austen of his time and genre. Perhaps that is off-putting for some, but for me it equates literary excellence. It means exercising the English language and thrusting your pen into purpose-driven plotting.
Some will find the in-depth descriptions of ships and ship life laborious. I can't totally disagree. In fact M&C's publishers were hesitant to green light the book for that very reason. Here's a suggestion: muscle through those bits. Don't worry if you don't know the difference between bow and stern, port and starboard, or the maintop and the bilge. Stephen Maturin is used as the landsman foil through which much naval jargon may be learned and if you remain as ignorant as he does, you'll be fine. But on the other hand, if you like sailing, the navy, and attention to detail...my friend, you've struck gold!
Reading about old naval battles may not be everyone's cup of tea. Thankfully O'Brian goes well beyond other writers of the genre, such as C.S. Forester's more limited scope by delving deep into the minds of his main characters. The full range of human behavior and the resulting affects it has on their actions is entwined so beautifully with O'Brian's full descriptive prose, touching on all the senses. Those with short attention spans demanding constant action maybe too impatient to read through these elegantly and intricately designed scenes with their highly tuned subtlety and nuance. But most will probably find that the author has struck a marvelous balance between literary high-mindedness and high-seas adventure.
Rating: I am tempted to give this five stars, and if it weren't for the too-lengthy and minute descriptions of naval matters, I probably would.
The Movie: Movies based on books are what they are: condensed versions that are not always representative of the original. Sourced from two books (and maybe more), while entirely leaving out a storyline integral to the book series, Weir's directorial effort represents M&C fairly well in its bursts of action between languid pauses to breathe in real life and the horrors/wonders of the world.
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