Master and Commander (book) Rambly Review-ish

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I have just finished the novel Master and Commander, the first of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels, and I can assert O’Brian has a new fan. I had attempted this series before, 15-20 years ago when my dad was obsessed with it, and it didn’t grab me. I guess sometimes the time has to be right. I wanted to write a big essay on it, but finding myself generally exhausted (by life, not the book), I’ll content myself with some quick takes instead.

Summary
In the year 1800, English naval captain Jack Aubrey meets Irish physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin and persuades him to join his ship as its surgeon. They proceed to develop a friendship in the course of naval adventures in the Napoleonic Wars.

Light spoilers may follow…

Stuff I Liked
There’s next-to-no setup and payoff. Okay, there’s a little, but largely the book feels like it’s just people going about their lives in the Napoleonic Wars, and what setup and payoff there is feels largely like natural life consequences. Now, I do believe the strongest narratives have good setup and payoff, but it’s considered a “must” for almost everything today, and there’s something refreshingly natural about just seeing people about their lives with a minimum of narrative contrivance. The ending is terribly anti-climactic and, you know, I’m okay with that.

The narration does not coddle the audience. O’Brian’s descriptions can be very detailed when he’s scene setting, but he rarely adds a spare word about feeling, motivation, or unnecessary scene transition. In fact, scenes can change between one line of dialogue and the next with no break in the text and no immediate indication that it is now four hours later and everyone has gone to dinner. You just have to catch up–and I’m fine with that. In fact, I really admire how he drops in character-building moments, like So-and-So received a letter, with no fanfare and little explanation and just allows the reader to connect the dots as to what this means. It creates good suspense (sometimes) and good opportunity for reader participation (always). Oh, and the sea jargon is incomprehensible to me. O’Brian makes little effort to explain it–and I’m okay with that too.

It’s a nice mix of historical verisimilitude and modern literary license. O’Brian is famous for having done his homework on everything from naval maneuvers to Austenian-era language, and it shows. I feel convincingly transported to the British Empire in 1800. At the same time, this doesn’t read like an Austenian-era book. As a novel from the 1970s, it’s allowed to be more vulgar, more straightforward, and more political, and that, too, lends a kind of realism. This textual honesty is probably best on display in the quiet but persistent context of Irish oppression. Several scenes feature two Irishmen remarking on their English friend/captain, and the gulfs in privilege come across well without preaching: the way the Irish have to understand the English but the reverse is not the case feels very authentic and pointed. Read more… )

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About the author

Arwen Spicer
Arwen Spicer

Arwen Spicer is a science fiction writer and writing teacher raised in the San Fransciso Bay Area, and Northern California will hold her heart forever, even if it turns into a desert. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ecology in utopian science fiction and is an educator on the concept of workable utopias. Her novel The Hour before Morning was hailed as “A carefully paced, rewarding sci-fi debut” by Kirkus Indie.

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Arwen Spicer

Arwen Spicer

Arwen Spicer is a science fiction writer and writing teacher raised in the San Fransciso Bay Area, and Northern California will hold her heart forever, even if it turns into a desert. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ecology in utopian science fiction and is an educator on the concept of workable utopias. Her novel The Hour before Morning was hailed as “A carefully paced, rewarding sci-fi debut” by Kirkus Indie.

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