book reviews

Book Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)Master and Commander

by Patrick O’Brian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

In 1991, The New York Times Book Review characterized Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin naval adventure novels as “the best historical novels ever written”. That’s not why I selected it. I picked up the first in the twenty-book series,  “Master and Commander”, on the recommendation of my WIP’s main characters. I was hoping by reading at least one, I’d get better insights into the two people who make my book possible.

What I found was an amazing story. The book is set on a British man-of-war during the Napoleonic Wars. The closely-packed 400+ pages shows in vivid terms how Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin meet, set sail into the midst of the naval-intensive Napoleonic Wars, and–despite a rocky beginning that centered around classical music–develop the deep, abiding friendship and respectful camaraderie that will take them through decades. O’Brian develops Aubrey’s character as a lifelong seaman and Maturin as a skilled doctor who loves everything about life (including botany and biology), and then spends the rest of the novel showing how these two polar-opposites become close and respectful friends.

If there is a plot, it is loosely centered on spotlighting their ship–the Sophie–in battle. The detail is amazing with dozens of scenes like this one…

“They cast loose the tackles that held the gun hard against the side and cut the spun-yarn frapping that clenched the breeching to hold it firmer still.”

O’Brian does for warships what Michener does for settings, or Matthieson does for nature. I was fascinated reading about life aboard a British man-of-war. Who knew it included poetry shared and appreciated, musical interludes joined by violins and cellos, and a demand for civility and culture I’d expect left ashore when the sailors went to sea.

This book was first published in 1970. The difference in what was printed then and now is stark. For example, here are several traits rampant in this book I think would immediately get any of today’s novels tossed to the trash:

  • There is little white space on the pages:


  • Sea jargon is used throughout, to the point it feels like a foreign language. Read this:

“She was in stays; and now she was paying off fast. … the half-seen waisters hauled on the starboard braces like veteran forecastlemen…”

  • The author often jumps POV between characters within a paragraph.
  • The dialogue of two people is often within the same paragraph.
  • There is no effort (like a ***) to separate scenes or show time passing. Readers must be attentive or risk losing track of the timeline.

One great line I’ll share, for all those in the service of their nation’s Navy. That world hasn’t changed:

“The quarter-deck of a man-of-war may justly be considered as a national school for the instruction of a numerous portion of our youth; there it is that they develop a habit of discipline and become instructed in all the interesting minutiae of the service. Punctuality, cleanliness, diligence and dispatch are regularly inculcated…”

This book is highly recommended for those who love sea stories. I’ve found my next great series.

If you’d like to purchase it from Amazon, click the link below:

Master and Commander

More military thrillers:

Book Review: Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailor

Book Review: Trident Deception

One Hundred Days–the British Military Mind

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

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26 thoughts on “Book Review: Master and Commander

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  9. Another book I haven’t read but have handled at least a half-dozen copies at one time or another at the used bookstore I volunteer at. Sounds too heavy for me.
    I notice books from the 30 or so years ago have word-cramped pages with little space between the lines. Even today, some university presses, which publish literary magazines haven’t changed to present day line spacing or readable font.


  10. I like that your WIP characters directed you to read this book. I have the same problem–my characters are forever giving me chores. I’m glad your assignment was such a pleasant find.


      • They always have me checking out details. One repeatedly wants lists of songs–pre 1931. (And with the internet, I get not just the songs, but the eagworms to go with them.) Another wants images of Victorian Mourning jewelry. And then there’s the issue of appropriate early 20th Century cars! (Not my bailiwick, and my dad, who used to help me here, has passed away.) Sigh.


  11. I remember reading and loving this book. I’m interested in your viewpoint about the nautical terms but as a bit of a seaman myself, and with ancestors who actually sailed with Nelson’s navy, I don’t mind the authentic language and the effort entailed in sometimes having to look up terms. It gives it such an authentic feel, and you feel almost as if you have the inside track on seafaring of the time.


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