Book Review: O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin Series, Books 1-3

Aubrey/Maturin series, Books 1-3 – by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Setting the Scene

It is 1800, with Europe convulsed in the Napoleonic Wars. On the Mediterranean island of Minorca, a ship-less British lieutenant and an impoverished doctor attend a concert, sitting next to each other by happenstance. The officer has the temerity to keep time to the string quartet a half-beat fast, which draws the ire of the doctor…

Review

Don’t do what I did when I first tried to get into this series decades ago and get frustrated trying to understand all the 18th/19th century sailing lingo thrown at you. For an example, try to parse this passage in chapter 2 (page 79) of Master and Commander, the first book in the series:

 "Hitch on the runners," said Jack. "No, farther out. Half way to the second quarter. Surge the hawser and lower away." The yard came down on deck and the carpenter hurried off for his tools. "Mr. Watt," said Jack to the bosun. "Just rig me the brace-pendants, will you?" The bosun opened his mouth, shut it again and bent slowly to his work: anywhere outside Bedlam brace-pendants were rigged after the horses, after the stirrups, after the yard-tackle pendants (or a thimble for the tackle-hook, if preferred): and none them, ever, until the stop-cleat, the narrow part for them all to rest upon, had worked on the sawn-off end and provided with a collar to prevent them from drawing in towards the middle"

There is no glossary at the end of the book, or much of any kind of info-dump to this point. There is only a drawing of a typical square-rigged ship with all the different sails identified. But upon my second reading, I realized that you aren’t required to understand the jargon in order to enjoy the series. In fact, it’s the total immersion within the world of the British navy and life during the Napoleonic Wars that is one of the draws of the Aubrey/Maturin series. Reading them is akin to walking through a time portal into that era with no preparation; you will at first struggle to comprehend the lingo, the culture, the motivations of the characters, but slowly you begin to tease out the rules the society is based upon, then later begin to know the characters, and by then it doesn’t really matter if you still don’t know the difference between a spritsail and a topgallant. O’Brian almost never will tell you anything directly, instead you either hear it spoken of in conversation, or have to imply it from the actions of the characters.

Normally this steep learning curve wouldn’t keep the reader engaged long enough to endure those growing pains, but O’Brian has provided two of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across to keep you turning the pages. Jack Aubrey is a talented leader of men and a cunning strategist on board a ship, a man of action, yet fails at practically every endeavor he attempts on shore. Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician, is a man fascinated with the natural world, a spy for the British government, and a man of introspection. These two could not possibly be more different, but as the series goes on, their friendship, though tested at times (including upon their first meeting), endures and if anything gets stronger.

O’Brian’s prose is another bright light to help you through your initial struggles. His words are of the time, but his style is certainly not. Unlike the authors of the early 19th century, O’Brian does not spend much time in setting the scene or spend hardly any time in authorial asides. He will flit from perspective to perspective at a whim, not caring too much if the reader doesn’t follow, at least right away. He will bring up subject matters the authors of that period would not touch with a 20-foot pole. His humor is subtle and dry and of course era-appropriate, so don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize much of it until your immersion training is almost complete.

Once you start to get a handle on O’Brian’s world, you will be irreparably hooked. That moment for me happened about half-way through the second book in the series (Post Captain) at which point I finished the last 250 pages or so in one sitting. I then waited impatiently for Book 3 (H.M.S Surprise) to arrive in the mail, then finished that 400-page book at a more leisurely pace (one week) only because I wanted to savor it. I am so far resisting the temptation to buy the next batch of volumes in e-book format, but I already have the first three in physical form and don’t want to mess that up (plus, the Aubrey-Maturin trade paperbacks, though expensive, are well-made).

What makes this series so great? I think the amalgamation of the sublime main characters, O’Brian’s almost poetic prose style, and his complete commitment to immersing the reader into the period gets you half an explanation. But ultimately it’s the plot that completes the package. After all, if there was nothing for Aubrey and Maturin to do, it would be a boring, though aesthetically pleasing, set of books that would be praised only in elite literary circles. Thankfully, O’Brian uses these brilliant foundations to support a cracking story. If you like naval action, you have it in abundance. If you like reading historical romance, you have plenty of that. If you like political intrigue, you have that in spades as well.

While the story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the general historical events that occurred during this period, O’Brian does not limit himself to depicting naval battles that actually happened. However, it is clear that although much of the action that occurs in the books did not happen in real life, they could have happened because of his singular commitment to correct detail, and most of the characters, though they didn’t exist, feel as real to the reader as any who actually did. In his introduction to Master and Commander, O’Brian writes that “when I describe a fight I have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts or the participants’ own memoirs to vouch for every exchange. Yet, on the other hand, I have not felt slavishly bound to precise chronological sequence.”

Prose Examples

Jack Aubrey addresses his men before an engagement in Post Captain:

"Shipmates," he said, loud and clear, smiling at them, "that fellow down there is only a privateer. I know him well. He has a long row of gun-ports, but there are only six- and eight-pounders behind 'em, and ours are twenty-fours, though he don't know it. Presently I shall edge down on him - he pepper us a while with his little guns, but it don't signify - and then, when we are so close we cannot miss, why, we shall give him such a broadside! A broadside with every gun low at his mizzen. Not a shot, now, until the drum beats, and then every ball low at his mizzen. Ply 'em quick, and waste not a shot."

(Chapter 9, page 330)

Stephen Maturin writes in his diary about an interaction with Aubrey in H.M.S. Surprise

"I must go down into the yard, said he: we are stepping the new capstan this evenings. Had there been powder-smoke in the room, a tangible enemy at hand, there would have been none of this hesitation, no long stare: he would have known his mind and he would have acted at once, with intelligent deliberation. But now he is at a stand. With that odious freedom I prattled on: in doing so I overcame my shame; but it was bitter cruel and sharp while it lasted....

(Chapter 7, page 222)

Book/Series Information

I’ve seen many say that the 20 books (and one fragment) in the Aubrey/Maturin series is one long book, therefore they should be read in order. Based on the first three books in the series, I think that is mostly correct. I think you can get away with starting with Post Captain and not miss much of the ongoing story (I think O’Brian originally intended Master and Commander to be a stand-alone novel, so all of the plot points were tied up neatly at the end), but for the remainder of the series I recommend reading them in published order.

(All books published by W.W. Norton)

  1. Master and Commander (1970)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. H.M.S. Surprise (1973)
  4. The Mauritius Command (1977)
  5. Desolation Island (1979)
  6. The Fortune of War (1980)
  7. The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)
  8. The Ionian Mission (1982)
  9. Treason’s Harbor (1983)
  10. The Far Side of the World (1984)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
  12. The Letter of Marque (1988)
  13. The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (1990)
  15. The Truelove (1992)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
  17. The Commodore (1994)
  18. The Yellow Admiral (1996)
  19. The Hundred Days (1998)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
  21. 21 (fragment) (2004)

Prices (as of May 2020): $26.95 hardback, $15.95 trade paperback, $8 to $13 e-book, depending on the store or volume number (Amazon is the cheapest). If you’d like to try before you buy, your local library will undoubtedly have copies of at least the first few books in the series.

Other Works by the Author

Fantastic Fiction

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