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Minorca, 1800 – during a chamber music recital Stephen Maturin is driven to distraction by his neighbour’s humming. Elbowing Jack Aubrey in the ribs, he nearly provokes a duel, yet out of this unpromising beginning, a firm friendship grows and Aubrey appoints Maturin to the position of ship’s surgeon aboard his tiny sloop, HMS Sophie. As Aubrey strives to turn the Sophie’s fortunes around, Maturin follows a dangerous career as a British spy.
First published in 1970, Master & Commander was the start of an extraordinary journey for millions of readers the world over – a journey that was to last 30 years. Author and journalist Max Hastings, introducer to this edition and one of O’Brian’s greatest admirers, explains: ‘The publication of each new Aubrey-Maturin volume became a literary event in London and New York alike, even in Paris and Tokyo.’ Whilst the naval adventure novel has a long and distinguished literary history, none has inhabited the genre with such unqualified mastery as Patrick O’Brian.
To read Master & Commander is to experience life at sea in the days of Nelson, from the racy below-deck humour to the breathless thrill of a skirmish with an Algerian quarter-galley. The atmosphere on board ship is palpable: the slap of the surf on deck, the feel of the rigging under bruised fingers, the monotonous diet, the tensions, disciplines and loyal friendships.
Above all, there is a sure and subtle grasp of plot and character, and of the larger issues of the period, from medicine and politics to music and philosophy. O’Brian allows us to be eyewitnesses to history, making him, as Hastings says, ‘the most brilliant historical novelist of modern times’. impeccably researched maps and battle plans which illuminate the historical milieu and take us to the heart of the action.
Read more about the life and work of Patrick O'Brian
In 1991, an article appeared in The New York Times entitled ‘An Author I’d Walk the Plank For’. Like millions of readers around the world, the writer, Richard Snow, had become addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. Set against the sprawling canvas of the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian’s naval adventure novels evoke this period in history like no others. Their success is down to the vim and vigour of O’Brian’s prose, his extraordinary eye for period detail and his ear for language. In Snow’s words: ‘O’Brian summoned up with casual omniscience the workaday magic of a vanished time.’
The partnership between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin is at the heart of Patrick O’Brian’s masterful series. Beyond the beautifully textured period setting and the thrilling skirmishes and naval battles (many based on real events), the popularity of the novels stems from these two engaging, intriguing protagonists, with Aubrey’s passionate nature providing a marvellous foil for Maturin’s more enigmatic character. Two centuries may separate us from them, but O’Brian creates an utterly compelling portrait of two men and a world at war.
Review by tomhumphreys on 24th Jan 2013
"I must confess, I had never thought to read these, despite their reputation and my great interest in the Napoleonic Wars. Having read and loved the Hornblower novels, I felt I didn't have room for ano..." [read more]