Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian – A Book Review

Master and commander


Master and Commander is the first of Patrick O’Brian’s now famous Aubrey/Maturin novels, regarded by many as the greatest series of historical novels ever written. It establishes the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey RN and Stephen Maturin, who becomes his secretive ship’s surgeon and an intelligence agent. It contains all the action and excitement which could possibly be hoped for in a historical novel, but it also displays the qualities which have put O’Brian far ahead of any of his competitors: his depiction of the detail of life aboard a Nelsonic man-of-war, of weapons, food, conversation and ambience, of the landscape and of the sea. O’Brian’s portrayal of each of these is faultless and the sense of period throughout is acute. His power of characterisation is above all masterly.

Author: Patrick O’Brian
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: 19/12/2011 (this kindle version)
Pages: 457
Series: Aubrey/Maturin #1
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Chosen Format: Kindle
My Rating of ‘Master & Commander: 3 out of 5
Purchase: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Audible UK, Audible US


Master and Commander is one of those novels that, as a lover of historical fiction, and of all things nautical, I not only wanted to read, but felt was required reading at some point.

I went in with excitement and high expectations and came out the other side feeling the book lacked excitement or any meaningful direction, yet possessed various other strengths.

One of of those strengths, in fact I’d say chief amongst them, was the realism that bleeds from the pages. This could also be a weakness for anyone not used to the authentic lingo of the time. I say this as the whole novel is written in a very time-authentic manner that could quite easily turn the layman off. For me, I loved it as it gave a real sense of what it was like to be alive at the time.

Another strength was the sheer authenticity of the life aboard a naval vessel of that era. Everything from ship jargon in day to day conversations to extensive info on how certain aspects of the ship work.

Now, as much of a strength as that last one is, it also lands itself in the weakness column. On more than one occasion you would have Dr Maturin (not a naval man by any stretch of the imagination) lap up lengthy explanations of every aspect of a mast or a certain type of sail (right down to the measurements). As thrilling as it must of been to the good doctor, it felt very much like reading a naval instruction manual at times and really slowed the pace down for me.

The slowness of the pace wasn’t helped by the fact that there didn’t really seem to be any actual story line other than Jack being a prize-hunting captain hoping for promotion. That amounted to his ship roaming the seas in search of enemy vessels and attempting to take them. By the time the book drew to a close I felt far more involved and also that I was enjoying the story being told than I did anywhere up to the 80-90% mark.

One other annoyance for me was the formatting of the kindle version. For the most part, it’s fine. There are, however, tiny parts that ruin the flow and confuse you as a reader. For instance: switching pov but only using a new paragraph rather than starting a new section, or having one character say something and the next reply on the same line rather than a new paragraph. Just little jarring things that suck you out of the reading experience and force you to check it wasn’t you reading it wrong.

That feeling I mentioned near the end, however, will see me carry on with the next in the series at some point in the hope that the wave of good feeling carries on.

21 thoughts on “Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian – A Book Review

  1. I saw the movie Master and Commander with Russel Crowe years back, and I have to say I quite liked it. Just like what you write in this review, it depicted a lot of realism and authenticity. I don’t think it’s a book that would be high on my priority list, but it’s certainly a book I might read one day. Great review😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Piotrek recommended this series to me many times, but I haven’t yet read it… Only saw the movie, which I can recommend as maybe not the most gripping one (and with a tad weird ending, clearly indicating that there was a plan for more movies), but quite historically and navally accurate. What you write sounds pretty intriguing, Aaron, despite the flaws you mentioned 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve had it from numerous sources the series only gets beter and beter, only hitting it’s stride in book 4 of 5, and then it should be genius – all the emotional investment pays of.

        Also, it’s one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s favorite set of novels, together with Wolf Hall.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t even know that Master and Commander is a book – I knew it as a film only with Russell Crowe, a film which I found quite tedious, actually. I do like a sea book written authentically, so I may check out this book, thanks for the great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is incredibly authentic, so much so that if you aren’t used to the lingo of the time you might feel a bit muddled. Fortunately, I love the older style of language 🙂

      Never seen the film but it never appealed to me.


  4. Great review, glad you… didn’t hate it ;)? What I love about this series is the slow pace, the meticulous attention to historical and maritime details, the way O’Brian managed to write characters with believable historical mentalities… it was a series of leisurely journeys into the Napoleonic era, not without some great action from time to time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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