Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Published by Norton

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian is the first volume in the widely popular Aubrey/Maturin series. It was originally recommended to me by a friend who suggested that it might help me in introducing a complex background to a reader without lengthy and indigestable expository lumps. I had approached it with some level of trepidation, since I generally do not enjoy mainstream fiction.

However, I was soon happily surprised. Perhaps it is simply that the setting is removed enough from the grubby trivialities of the here-and-now that it doesn't give me that "worst of both worlds" reaction I get from most mimetic fiction (that is, staying drearily grounded is the tiresome present instead of transporting me to more interesting vistas, yet not providing any real information about the present). Whatever the reason, I was soon so deeply involved that I was almost disappointed to come to the last page, and am looking forward to reading the next volumes in the series.

The novel begins with a chance and rather acrimonious encounter between the two men who will become the principal protagonists. Jack Aubrey, a junior officer in the Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, a physician with a troubled past, share a common delight in music which has brought both of them to attend a concert. Maturin speaks rather harshly to Aubrey about proper behavior at a concert, and it appears that they will be enemies.

When they encounter one another on the road the next day Aubrey is in much better spirits, having just received a promotion and his first independent command. As he comes to know Maturin much better, he decides to offer this man the currently vacant position of surgeon aboard his new ship, the sloop Sophie. Maturin hesitates, but when considering his current precarious position, decides to take the offer.

Thus they are off on a fascinating set of adventures in the Mediterannean. Maturin, a landsman through and through, slowly learns the ways of life at sea. His ignorance of even the most basic of nautical terminology provides an opportunity to introduce the reader to these complexities as well.

My only complaint about this book is that the personal conflict between the principals and James Dillon, the lieutenant of the Sophie, was ended more than resolved by Dillon's sudden death in action against the xebec-frigate Cacafuego. However, it is a small point and doesn't really detract from the overall enjoyability of the book as a whole.

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Review posted November 28, 1999

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