Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review of Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (1969, HarperCollins)

1800, Port Mahon, Minorca.  Music lover and womaniser Jack Aubrey is given command of his first ship, Sophie, a sloop.  He persuades a poor doctor visiting the island, Stephen Maturin, to sign on as his ship’s surgeon.  His First Lieutenant is James Dillon who, like Stephen, is an Irishman with a hidden past, taking part in the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798.  All three are keen to leave their past behind and ambitious to make a mark.  While Maturin gets used to life at sea, Aubrey and Dillon drill the lacklustre crew, intent on capturing as many prize ships as they can on their convoy duty and patrols (each ship ensnared supplements the crew’s thin wages).  Aubrey seems to be a lucky captain, outwitting French and Spanish ships and taking them in hand after short engagements.  His superiors, however, do not hold him in high regard, especially Captain Harte, with whose wife Aubrey has been having an affair.  Instead of being feted for his exploits, Aubrey might be heading to a court martial, especially if his luck abandons him.

Master and Commander is the first instalment of the historical nautical series featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin which ran to twenty one books.  The story tells the tale of the first command of Aubrey, sailing the sloop, Sophie, from Port Mahon in Minorca.  O’Brian pays a lot of attention to detail, describing carefully the ship's configuration, the chain of command, and life on board a Royal Navy vessel during the Napoleonic war.  Aubrey is modelled on Lord Cochrane and the plot includes many real battles that Cochrane fought whilst commanding HMS Speedy from its Mahon base.  Interestingly, there is no real plot arc – there’s no quest that Aubrey and his crew are seeking to fulfil – rather it is almost like a year in the life of a crew, captained by an ambitious commander.  For the first one hundred pages, almost nothing happens other than the reader being introduced to the main characters, to the ship, and the wider context.  And thereafter, much of the narrative concerns everyday life on board a ship and the interactions of the principal characters, interspersed with naval action as Sophie does battle with various French and Spanish ships, though the story does work its way eventually to a satisfactory denouement.  It’s an interesting and informative read, and is written in engaging prose, but would have benefitted in my view with a stronger plot hook.

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