Patrick O'Brian,
Master & Commander
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1970;
W.W. Norton, 1990)

It's an exhilarating voyage from start to finish.

Master & Commander, the first book in Patrick O'Brian's 20-book, early 19th-century saga on the high seas, is every bit as good as I hoped it would be -- nay, better -- after seeing (several times) the acclaimed movie Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World and reading a triad of novels from mid-series.

It begins, surprisingly, on dry land, in the music room of the governor's mansion on Port Mahon, where a concert is taking place. Jack Aubrey, newly named master and commander of the British naval sloop Sophie, nearly comes to blows with his neighbor -- the two gentlemen have vastly different notions of how best to enjoy elegant music. Quickly, the two become best of friends, however, and fortunately so for both of them; Stephen Maturin is a physician without a position, and Aubrey has a ship without a surgeon. The famous friendship is off to a cracking good start.

The novel is any landlubber's dream excursion on a sailing ship of old. Like the movie (and unlike the novel The Far Side of the World) it is filled stern to prow with military intrigue, nautical adventures galore, brilliant tactics and broadsides enough to fill your reading room with the heavy scent of smoke and powder. There are several sea battles, of large scale and small, through the course of this book, and each is exciting, tense and ultimately satisfying.

The character development for which O'Brian is justifiably renowned is in place from the start. Aubrey is a captain whose cheerful disposition never flags for long; he is a cunning strategist and has more than his share of luck in engagements at sea; on land, he is something of a hound among women and is endlessly restless to set sail once more.

Maturin, on the other hand, is a scholar, endlessly inquisitive about all things, endlessly compassionate towards the sick and injured. He is a complete novice at sea, too, and it's grandly entertaining to watch him gain his sea legs and gradually learn the basics of life on a military vessel.

There are plenty of supporting characters in this novel, both above and below Aubrey in the chain of command. One strong subplot involves Aubrey's second-in-command, Lt. James Dillon, who exudes courage but lacks Aubrey's restraint and strategy against superior foes. Another involves the wife of a superior officer, an indiscreet mistress who could jeopardize Aubrey's future in the service.

Shipmates who become like old friends through the course of the series make their first appearances here: Pullings, Mowett, Killick, Bonden, Lamb and more. Through them, too, you will learn more than your share of knowledge of the working of a ship's rigging.

History can be dry stuff, and historical fiction can be overly dramatic or romantic without retaining a true sense of history in the story. Master & Commander is a superior tale, evoking a true sense of the time while maintaining an edge-of-your-seat plot throughout and introducing some of the genre's most exceptional characters to boot. I have never read a better historical novel.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 28 August 2004

Buy it from