Issue 11: Vhcle Books – Master and Commander
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To address the first, there were times where the book felt like “Jane Austen at sea,” which is by no means in and of itself a bad thing. I would be very interested to read that book. The problem arises when O’Brian switches modes from epic sea battles to the social faux pas of a powdered wig being off kilter. I appreciate that it’s there – it makes for rich character development and shows an interesting cross section of British society in the early 19th century – but there’s simply too much of it in some places, and it can slow the pace of the book to something like that of a glacier.
The second is an easy trap to fall into. History buffs and sailors will be delighted with the painstaking detail that O’Brian goes into in order to accurately portray life aboard a sail-powered warship, but the rest of us will have some trouble. Your average reader will not know what a forecastle is on a ship,
or where characters even are in a scene when one is luffing the headsail and shouting to another up in
the spars. The book even has a diagram with the names of no less than 21 different sails, and I found it lacking.
Overall these complaints only detract a little from an overall delightful experience. The slow paced character-development portions of the book will make the payoff of the epic sea battles ten times more satisfying, and while at times confusing, the technical and historical accuracy gives a window into the life of a 19th century sailor. The bottom line is that O’Brian does what every writer is told to do over and over incredibly well: show, don’t tell. I heartily recommend this book, and will be continuing on in the Jack Aubrey series, as O’Brian has created two well-rounded characters that I care about deeply, and I can’t wait to see where they end up next.

This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 11

Myles Lawrence-Briggs is a 24 year-old recent graduate from CU Boulder in English literature, Myles has moved back to the wine country to start a wine label with two childhood friends. He manages the estate vineyard and in his spare time reads far too much and writes far too little.  
PATRICK O’ BRIAN is a tricky author to nail down. On the surface his prose seem straightforward and his famous Jack Aubrey novels appear to be nothing more than an exciting sea adventure. And there would be nothing wrong with that. Pirates of the Caribbean has proved that there is a receptive audience out there for that kind of thing. But O’Brian’s style is deceptively complex: he masterfully and subtly builds his characters, growing them and evolving them right before the reader’s eyes. The result is that while on the surface Master and Commander seems a simple adventure at sea, it is truly a character study set within the time of Nelson’s Royal Navy.
Our story follows Jack Aubrey, a recently promoted “master and commander,” a rank just below captain, who has just been given command of His Majesty’s Ship, The Sophie. When we first meet Jack, he is a morose lieutenant lamenting being passed over for promotion yet again. In his low spirits he almost challenges a man to a duel during a humorously passive-aggressive confrontation at a music recital. The next day he learns that he has in fact been promoted, and running into the man from the night before, apologizes and invites him to dinner and the two become fast friends. And there we have our second protagonist: Stephen Maturin, an aloof and intelligent physician who will become The Sophie’s surgeon. This rocky start to their relationship is soon revealed to be typical of Jack’s wildly oscillating mood. In his unbridled enthusiasm at being promoted, Jack immediately overloads The Sophie, a very small ship, with heavy guns in an attempt to turn her into
“a real man o’ war,” much to the vexation of his new crew. In fact Jack swings so frequently from abject despair to maniacal energy that one could make a strong argument for the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
This is the heart of the issue and what makes O’Brian really shine as a writer. He compels the reader to take apart and understand each character and genuinely care about what happens to them. This makes it all the more thrilling when Jack and Stephen are at odds, or when Jack is forced to navigate the pitfalls of British society and the Naval hierarchy. The characters grow and change right before our eyes,
and by the end of the book they are not the same people we met at the beginning, but it’s done in
such a subtle way that it can pass by the inattentive reader unnoticed.
I have only two gripes with this book. One: O’Brian spends a bit longer than necessary building his characters, and two: if the reader has not even a little knowledge of ships, things can be confusing.
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Master and Commander
Master and Commander, March 2013 Vhcle Magazine
Issue 11, Vhcle Books
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