Master and Commander

I finished Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander last night. This is the second time I’ve read the book; the first was probably 10 or more years ago. But I saw the movie (very good, btw) and just felt like taking a second look.

The first time I read it, I found it hard going. It was just too heavy on verbosity and too light on action. I’d just come off reading the entire Hornblower series and O’Brian’s style just wasn’t snappy enough for me at the time.

Well, I guess I’ve mellowed in my old age, because this time ’round I absolutely adored the book. The interactions between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (the doctor — if you saw the movie I don’t think they once used his name) that I once found dull as dirt I now found quite amusing. And Aubrey himself is so much more interesting a character than his movie-version self. In fact, the film bears very little resemblance to the book (the film is based on both M&C and Post Captain, the second book in the series) which will no doubt disappoint some film fans.

Instead of chasing a Frenchman around the Cape into the Pacific, the book finds Aubrey in command of the HMS Sophie doing convoy duty along the coast of Spain and into the Mediterranean while trying to whip the crew into shape. Maturin is somewhat stranded; the patient he has accompanied to Port Mahon died en route, and Maturin finds himself adrift with no means of support. Aubrey needs a ship’s surgeon. Maturin is a physician, meaning the surgeon position would normally be beneath him. But being down and out, he accepts the job and off they go on an adventure that lasts through many, many books.

The nice bit about Maturin is, he’s no seaman. So as he tries to puzzle things out, you, the reader, are brought up to speed on the workings of the Sophie. O’Brian’s writing style reminds me somewhat of Dickens in that he tends to embellish and elaborate in an attempt to put you in the moment. So between that tendency and the technical details that trip some people up, you get a book that has more length than story, in some senses. Still, I found it to be a rewarding experience the second time through, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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