I really enjoyed this book, which combines excitement and good fun with solid writing, research and character development.
Master and Commander is the story of Jack Aubrey, a newly-appointed captain in the British navy, and his newfound friend Steven Maturin, who soon becomes the ship’s surgeon. It’s 1800 and they sail the Mediterranean having various adventures, between run-ins with superiors on shore. A plot summary makes the book sound a bit like a thriller, but it never gets bogged down in cheap drama; instead it provides a complete immersion in the time period and the lives of the characters, weaving meticulous research into a compelling story.
The character development is strong, and the three main characters feel three-dimensional and believable, although the supporting cast is not as vivid and it took me awhile to sort them out. The writing is good. And the extraordinary detail with which the setting is brought to life is beyond impressive. Not for a moment did I have reason to doubt the authenticity of O’Brian’s portrayal of the time period, even though the book was written in the 1960s; the early 19th century comes to life in all its contradictions. Gallantry and brutality are equally accepted and expected parts of life, as are rigid social hierarchies and rules of conduct that would be completely foreign to us today. It’s a rare author who’s both willing to make his characters entirely of their times and yet able to make us root for them, and O’Brian pulls this off with aplomb.
My biggest reservation is the sheer amount of naval jargon and other obscure words and references. It’s great that the text isn’t dumbed down, but it desperately needs a few diagrams, a glossary and maybe an introductory note with some background on the British navy--I relied heavily on the internet to understand sections of this book, but Wikipedia can only do so much (and sailors explaining things to Maturin by pointing at something and saying “that there is the foretopgallantyard” isn’t especially helpful to a reader). There’s a particularly rough spot about 100 pages in where I started to doubt the book; it got better once I realized I didn’t need to understand all the seafaring terms to enjoy the story.
Overall, an excellent work of historical fiction, including both adventure and human relationships and complexities in good measure. Not sure I’m up for another 19 of them, but I plan to pick up the second book at least, and recommend this one.