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Friday
Oct291993

Master and Commander

Master and Commander
by Patrick O'Brian

I first saw mention of this faux historical series by Patrick O'Brian in the Common Reader catalog. Faux historical? I guess that's what to call it. O'Brian is historically realistic while using entirely fictional main characters, who may meet and interact with real historical figures. This is different from novels such as Robert Graves' I, Claudius or the Alexander novels of Mary Renault. While O'Brian's characters may not have the basis that Graves' or Renault's do, I wonder if he perhaps is the more realistic. This may be because O'Brian has much more historical documentation to work with. We simply know much more about the period of sailing ships and kings than we do about triremes and emperors. Graves' Claudius, although a reed in the wind of Roman politics, is still a very heroic figure; O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, although heroic, seem much more like real people. This is the opening book in the series (the sixteenth, The Wine-Dark Sea, just came out in hardcover) and sets the characters and stage. The title refers to Jack Aubrey, who is named Master and Commander (a step below Captain, yet in charge of a single ship) of the sloop Sophie as the story opens. Aubrey has a few character flaws, including being hot-headed and slightly indiscrete, and this has made for him a few enemies. The other main character is Stephen Maturin, who becomes the Sophie's ship surgeon, even though he is over-qualified for the job (as he is an actual doctor, and most ship surgeons of the time weren't). He shares with Aubrey some basic characteristics--a sense of honor, a love of fine food and music, and a real need for money. Maturin also has a past that, like Aubrey's, contributes a few enemies as well. But the character stuff, as good as it is and necessary to make this book work, is just icing on the cake. The fun here, and what got me interested in it when it recently became a topic of discussion on rec.arts.books, is the sea. The description of life aboard and off ship, in a land filled with merchantmen and warships, where loyalty to country is primary, but taking a heavy prize can make your name, the strategy of sea battles and the lonliness of like aboard ship. I've always been a sucker for pirate stories, and this is just the more honor-filled side. Needless to say, I expect I'll be reading the next fifteen books in the series and looking forward to O'Brian writing even more.

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