By Mark Traphagen on May 8, 2009
My Goodreads.com rating: 5 of 5 stars
If I believed in reincarnation, I would be convinced that Patrick O’Brian must have been a 19th century British naval officer in a former life. His Aubrey & Maturin novels recreate that world with almost eerie accuracy. In the end, though, it is the marvelous characters that drive this series. The curious friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin is surely one of the most intriguing in all of literature.
In fact, the level of detail and accuracy regarding early 19th century naval warfare and the vessels that conducted it may put off many readers from seeing the brilliance of the characterizations. O’Brian writes precisely as if he were setting down a contemporary account and to an audience familiar with the subject. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I were to find out that he wrote them with a quill pen. Unlike even Melville, he rarely condescends to explain things nautical to his readers.
At first, I kept a naval glossary by my side, but soon abandoned looking up terms as exhausting. Once I came to accept that it was not necessary to know what “she had the wind abaft the beam with nary a studdingsail unfurled” meant, I could concentrate on the real riches of the novel. In my opinion, the best thing to do when reading O’Brian is to just let all the nautical jargon flow over you, creating a warm shower of authenticity. Then set your taste buds to detect the wonderful flavors of the rich characters therein.
In Aubrey and Maturin, O’Brian brings us into the wonders and calamities that occur when opposites attract. On first meeting the two almost end up in a duel. Over what? Maturin’s whispered insults to Jack regarding his boorish foot-tapping at a concert where they ended up sitting next to each other. Music quickly turns, though, from their point of contention to their main point of contact. Both are creditable amateur string players, and sawing out duets in Jack’s cabin late into the evening becomes their chief stress reliever and bonding action.
There is more than their approach to music, though, to create dramatic tension between the two. Both have high intelligence levels, but displayed in very different ways. While Maturin is book-learned, thoughtful, scientific; Aubrey is more the man of quick wit and instinctive action. They further contrast in temperament: Jack can be hot-headed and given to saying whatever pops into his head; Stephen hides his emotions and keeps his thoughts to himself. Moreover, while Jack Aubrey is an open book, there are strong hints in this first novel that Maturin is a man of intrigue. There is much more about him than we know. He has some secret past that he is not yet revealing, even to Jack, and the reader senses that this will be a major factor in the upcoming stories.
For anyone who loves historical fiction–and especially 18th-19th century naval warfare–as I do, the Aubrey & Maturin series may be the next best thing to being there we will ever experience. Though generally serious in tone, O’Brian injects the right amount of both humor and social commentary into his novels to keep them enjoyable and thought-provoking.