Published 1970; 411 pages
This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war are faultless rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.
This book is great good fun. Nothing truly revolutionary is revealed on man's nature, and it's hardly a literary masterpiece. Rather, Master and Commander is a rolling sea-story, chronicling Captain Jack Aubrey's first command, the Sophie. The plot isn't typical by any means—there are no obvious rising actions, climaxes, or dénouements—instead, it reads more like a chronicle, which is fine by me.
O'Brian's attention to detail is amazing. Without a picture and constant explanation, I found that a lot of the more technical nautical terminology was lost on me, but those passages didn't seem to be of the utmost importance. Even so, that the author takes such careful attention to detail is worthy of note, in my opinion.
To my mind, the aspect that turns the book into a chivalrous sea adventure rather than a more in-depth novel, is the main protagonist, Jack. Here is a portly young twenty-something, absolutely obsessed with women, money, and fighting, completely oblivious to anything that doesn't have to do with those three things. For instance, he failed to notice that one of his officers was "more fond of the Captain [Jack] than he had any rights to be". With such a character in charge of the whole book, it's hard to take things seriously.
And some of the things O'Brian included were nearly ridiculous—obviously fiction or wishful thinking. The penultimate battle, where a captured Jack quite casually eats breakfast with his French captor while the British fleet destroys the French fleet, was purely romantic invention. Very nice to think of, sure, but not exactly how I'd imagine think would really have gone.
Stephen Maturin's character was a bit more serious, and therefore easier to think of as realistic. His connections in Ireland and Catalonia were interesting, and brought more depth to the book than there would have been otherwise, but not as much as you would have expected.
A fun sort of rollicking adventure story, with several worthy battles and plenty of humor. Master and Commander isn't earth-shattering, but it provides an entertaining tale.