Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

This is the first of some twenty books in the Aubrey – Maturin series of books, set in the British Navy world of the Napoleonic wars. I grew up on Horatio Hornblower, but I find these books to be much more complicated, and even better. My first recorded reading of this book was in August 2001, and my second in November 2006; and now this is the third reading, and I have enjoyed all over again.

It is April the First of the year 1800, and Lieutenant Jack Aubrey, in his twenties, having been to see with the Royal Navy since early boyhood, is in Port Mahon, Minorca, hoping to be given a ship. In the meantime, he goes to a musical concert, and first meets Stephen Maturin, also in his twenties, who is a half-Irish and half-Catalan physician and surgeon, among other, darker avocations. They do not instantly take to each other; in fact, they are prepared to have their friends act as seconds in setting up a duel between them. But when Aubrey becomes Master and Commander (not yet a posted Captain) on the brig HMS Sophie, his joy at the appointment causes him to meet Maturin again with benevolence. Upon finding out that Maturin plays cello (Aubrey plays the violin), he invites him to a temporary cruise on board the Sophie as the ship’s surgeon. Maturin finds out that he is vastly overqualified to be a ship’s surgeon (a ship’s doctor largely cures his charges from venereal disease and repairs the men from injuries in the course of their work or from battle, which repair is largely amputations), but he is at a low point (totally out of funds, and living in a ruined church up on the hill), and so he accepts the invitation – and thus begins one of the most celebrated friendships in fiction.

This particular book is taken up with the adventures of Sophie in the Mediterranean; Aubrey is dedicated to seamanship, gunnery, music, and conducting romantic liaisons, approximately in that order. Unfortunately, his latest romantic liaison is with the wife of Captain Harte, the Royal Navy station commander at Port Mahon, and consequently Harte has a deep and abiding grudge against Aubrey, and would love nothing more to see Aubrey ruined professionally and financially. Meanwhile, Maturin finds that Aubrey’s first lieutenant on board the Sophie is James Dillon; he is an extremely capable subordinate, but is also known to Maturin, as they were both involved in an Irish rebellion a few years back that ended very badly.

It should be noted that Aubrey and Maturin are quite complementary – one man knows the Royal Navy and Royal Navy ships inside and out, and not much else, while the other knows politics, medicine, surgery, but knows nothing about the Royal Navy and Royal Navy ships, so various necessary explanations as to what is going on in the book are neatly taken care of, through conversations that each man has with each other and with other people.

The next book in the series is Post Captain, and I will begin my re-reading of that book fairly soon.

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