Here is a little known fact about me: For as long as I can remember, I have harbored a secret desire to be a sailor. Not in today’s Navy. I want to be a sailor in the early 1800’s, when a sailor was called that because his ship actually had sails. You might have noticed that I am a tad unusual. Another unusual fact: I have a man-crush on Russell Crowe. I don’t know why, but I love the guy. In 2003 those two facts about me collided in one glorious cinematic production entitled “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”. I love that movie like few others. It is one of three that remain in my five disc DVD changer (the others are “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gladiator”).
The movie “Master and Commander” is based on several books in a series of twenty novels by Patrick O’Brian. I read the first few books in college but had little hope of acquiring all twenty until in 2007 my dear sweet mother gave me one of my all-time favorite Christmas gifts: The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels. The first novel in the series is (not surprisingly) Master and Commander. This book introduces the reader to Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Dr. Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is a young officer seeking advancement through the ranks of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. He receives a promotion to Master and Commander, in command of his own ship. He recruits the indigent Dr. Maturin as ship’s surgeon and the two develop a close friendship. Aubrey leads his small sloop, the fourteen-gun Sophie on a cruise along the Spanish coast, wreaking havoc on the coastal trade and earning a reputation for luck in taking prizes.
This success makes Aubrey a target for the Spanish Navy, which assigns a 32-gun xebec frigate the task of capturing the nuisance. When the two ships cross paths, Aubrey manages to lead the Sophie to victory and capture the much larger Spanish vessel. Unfortunately, Aubrey’s success with the wife of the Commandant of his home port robs him of the glory and promotion that should accompany his impressive victory. Instead, Aubrey and the Sophie are given orders to escort a slow vessel carrying mail. Along the way, the Sophie is captured by a French squadron and Aubrey and Maturin taken prisoner. They are paroled, but miss out on participating in the Battle of Algeciras. The book closes with Aubrey being cleared of any fault in the loss of his vessel and being returned to active duty.
I cannot say enough how much I love Master and Commander. It is thoroughly enjoyable as a single novel, and introduces one of the greatest literary series ever written. O’Brian evokes the atmosphere of the Napoleonic wars with a vividness and authenticity that is incredible. His mastery of naval jargon is impressive, and the reader is instantly hooked. I am admittedly a huge nerd, but when I read O’Brian’s writing, I find my inner voice narrating my own life with the accent and vocabulary of a British sailor. If you enjoy historical fiction that is action-packed and wonderfully written, read Master and Commander.
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