The First Command

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This week I went through Master and Commander, the first in the Aubrey/Marturin series by Patrick O’Brian.  Those of you who are movie-goers will be familiar with the film of similar name that combines elements of this first book with a later episode.

This has been perhaps the most well-researched novel that I have read in the last decade.  There is a reason that O’Brian’s books have spawned an entire genre of imitators, of whom the first ten Honor Harrington novels are personal favorites of mine.

The story is full of bold characters, brightly portrayed, thick with plot points and clever twists.  I listened to the audio book on Audible, with constant amazement.  This scene turned into one of the plot points in a David Weber novel.  That character beat shows up in three science fiction adventures ten years later.

For all of its genius, I fear that the Aubrey/Marturing series, obviously loved and often imitated by writers and English types, is much like chess.  It will remain a reference but not an experience for most of the people for some solid and daunting reasons.  First of all, this is the story about the British upper class going to war and leading the lower classes.  It is written for the upper class, about the upper class, and there is no attempt made whatsoever to “dumb down” the English to the American average of 4th to 6th grade reading level, or to explain 18th century English slang which would be archaic but perfectly well understood by O’Brian’s immediate audience.

I come from a British family that deliberately stays in touch with its roots.  (My cousin Ken would roll over in his grave if I called the family English, pow sows and all.)  I also hold an English degree so there was nothing in this book I had not struggled though to get an A in Restoration and 18th-Century Literature.  (Thank you, Dr. Donovan, the practice has indeed paid off!)

I think that most reasonably educated people would get a fair amount out of this series, but they may find it intimidating and leave off the heavy lifting to enjoy this thoroughly entertaining book.

I appreciated an emphasis on interpersonal friendships, professional ambition, and military action in the stories.  These are the very things that drew me to military fiction in the first place with On Basilisk Station.  Duty, honor, and friendship remain beats and conflicts within the story that humanize it very well.

These books are older now, published many years ago, and I consider them classics.

Recommended with warning.  The literary heavy lifting is well worth it, and if you enjoy it as much as I have there is much more waiting for you.  O’Brian’s fiction has earned its legacy.

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