Jack Aubrey was newly-made captain, after a delay not at all to his liking, but his ship was short men, and the previous captain took the surgeon with him to his new command. Earlier that evening he had made the acquaintance of Stephen Maturin. Initially the meeting was hardly amiable: they met at a concert on Minorca in 1801 and, Maturin had requested Aubrey to stop (subconsciously) waving his hands to music, and to at least do it on the beat. But before they came to blows, they discovered that they shared a love of music: Maturin playing the cello and Aubrey the violin, and quickly became friends. Maturin was a naturalist and physician, and also well-acquainted with the people and languages of the islands around Minorca. He was also currently destitute. Aubrey was less refined than Maturin—flirting which gauche—but an able commander of men. In addition to friendship, they were a good fit, as Aubrey needed a medical officer (an actual physician was much more capable than a normal ship’s surgeon) and Maturin desperately need an income, so he was happy to accept Aubrey’s offer.

Aubrey’s command was a twelve gun (four-pounders) sloop, the Sophie, whose crew was competent at sailing, but rather slow on the guns and generally rather relaxed. Their first orders were to convoy some merchant ships. Aubrey immediately got to work having the gunners practice. Soon he had to defend the convoy against some Arabic privateers, which was done more or less successfully. Britain was at war with France (and France’s ally, Spain), so after the convoy was finished, they were given orders for a “cruise”: to sail around the western Mediterranean and seize vessels belonging to either nation. So Aubrey managed to capture several merchant vessels, which he had a token crew sail back to Minorca. The ship and the goods were sold, and the captain got three-eights of the proceeds, the officers shared another eighth, the midshipmen and similar shared another eight, and the crew shared the final quarter. This could make a captain fairly wealthy, and Aubrey craved both glory and money, but primarily advancement to post-captain.

The Sophie‘s lieutenant was a Mr Dillon, who, as it happened, had been in the same Irish independence group as Maturin some years prior. But when the revolution completely failed, they diverged in their reactions. Maturin became pacifist and not religious, while Dillon became a Catholic and a strong proponent of independence. They kept their knowledge of each other secret, and Dillon kept his Catholicism under wraps; Aubrey had a strong (but vague) understanding that Catholic ideas, like communion being the real body and blood of Jesus were somehow very harmful. The ship’s master had a subtle homosexual interest in Aubrey, which Aubrey was completely oblivious of, but which was obvious to both Maturin and Dillon. The midshipmen were boys, a Mr Babbington and the other the son of Mr Ricketts, another officer of the ship.

Returning to Minorca, Aubrey attended a party thrown by the wife of Admiral Harte, with whom Aubrey was having an affair. He got fairly drunk, and thoroughly embarrassed himself, which his crew had already been doing. Maturin, more astute at reading the situation (and informed by one of the women) hastened Aubrey back to the Sophie and they slunk off under cover of night, to avoid the admiral retract their cruise—and thereby opportunities for glory, advancement, and money. Aubrey had met Admiral Nelson in Egypt, and was impressed with his motto of “just go after them”, which he applied to a large, hundred gun Spanish man-of-war they happened across. Aubrey had the weather gage, and got a couple of broadsides in by dint of surprise. The Sophie‘s four pound cannon did not do a lot of damage, but definitely some, while the man-of-war’s thirty-two pound cannons, which would do severe damage, were unable to target the Sophie because she was so much smaller and therefore shorter, that her deck was below the level they could shoot, as the two ships were right next to each other, trading broadsides. Eventually Aubrey could see that he could not hold out much longer, so he got a boarding party, split them, and did a surprised boarding attack. The pincer attack caused enough confusion that they surrendered before they realized how much they outnumbered the boarding party.

This capture of a much larger and high-class ship of the line by a twelve gun sloop was much remarked upon on their return. Aubrey was suddenly in demand everywhere, and he was expecting a handsome payout and possibly a promotion. Molly Harte gave party, where he was obliged to take on the young son of a friend of hers, despite having no experience on a ship whatsoever. The party was a bore, but they had a quite long fling afterwards. The admiral, however, was not amused. He raked Aubrey over the coals for being cavalier with his orders, and ordered him to convoy the mail ship to Gibraltar.

Their orders also included boarding an American ship and searching for two Irishmen wanted by the British government. Despite Dillon blackmailing the master to conspire to have the ship sail slowly, they did find the American ship (as Dillon felt that they inevitably would). The lieutenant was the officer who would do the boarding and searching, and he did not know what he would do, especially since one of the wanted men was a bishop. The bishop sneered at him, since he know that Dillon would betray his honor and let them go, which he did, telling Aubrey that the men were not on board. This relieved Aubrey, but betraying himself led Dillon to depression and exacerbated how Aubrey’s unwitting slights against the Irish rankled him. Maturin noted this in his (encrypted) journal, but was powerless to arrest the situation.

Aubrey chaffed at not being able to take any prizes, and that the government ship was purchased for only pennies on the pound, but he did see the wisdom in a senior officer’s advice that if he wanted a promotion—ever—he had better lie low and follow orders strictly. But, Aubrey could not help raiding the coast, seeing as how the Sophie was so much faster than the mail ship (especially since Aubrey had had the men clean the barnacles off the bottom). They could not take prizes, but they could burn ships in the harbor at night. After one such adventure, Maturin asked to be left ashore so he could spend some time alone, and be picked up the next morning. Aubrey agreed, especially since Maturin had just led them to a spring where they could refill their depleted water stores. But at sunrise the next morning, some French men-of-war had seen the burning of the ships, and sailing over to investigate, found the Sophie. Aubrey was hard put to it to escape, and was not able to return for a rather long time.

Eventually the French ships found the Sophie again, and she could not escape. Dillon was killed, and Aubrey was forced to lower his colors and surrender, lest his ship be sunk. They were close to land, and so they sailed in to a harbor. But while Aubrey was having breakfast with the French captain, he could see out the back windows of the cabin that British ships were bringing up a battle. The battle went back and forth, but eventually the wind was not in the attacker’s favor (not to mention the large cannons in the fort on the edge of the harbor) and the British had to withdraw, losing one ship which had run aground.

The crew was sent to nearby Gibraltar in a prisoner swap, although since the British had not sent the equivalent officers to the French yet, they were on “parole"—free to move about Gibraltar, except that they were forbidden by honor to take part in any hostilities against France. Also, as a matter of statute, the Admiralty performed a court-martial of any captain who lost his ship, so Aubrey had that to look forward to. But before that happened, Aubrey and Maturin’s diversion was watching a nearby naval battle, which the British won and which balanced out their loss a few days earlier.

Aubrey was cleared of any wrongdoing at the court-martial.

Master and Commander is a very rich period drama. O'Brian researched the material thoroughly, and many of the events that were narrated were derived from actual events and journals of sailors from that period of time. The book is very technical in regards to its use of naval language as well as the characters’ speech patterns. Between the two, it feels like window onto the British navy at the height of its power. O'Brian even succeeds in conveying the attitudes and values of the characters, such as how all the men of the ship looked forward to a battle, even relished it. This was partly because it was excitement to break up the monotony, but also they valued a chance to prove themselves heroic in the service of their country.

However, perhaps because of so much of the book being taken from real life, it feels kind of like reading a movie. The people do their thing, and you absorb the culture of the time, and stuff happens, but the reader is not invested in the outcome. I have begun to think that decisions are a crucial aspect of Story, and while books do not showcase the moment of decision as much as movies with their ability to show emotion, the choices tend to be clear and the consequences flow from that. Here, it is less clear what the actual choices were, and in any case, it is something happening to them, not some we should care about. Sometimes, even, the choice that was made is not even mentioned, and must be inferred. This was sometimes done well, but sometimes it went over my head, and I was just confused at the resulting situation. For instance, it was unclear what made Aubrey so unwelcome after his faux pas at the first party: was it the behavior of his men (which was remarked upon), or an off-color remark overheard by the women? And if the latter, what was the underlying cultural value that made an off-color remark so problematic that he needed to leave immediately?

While the book does not invest the readers in the characters and the lacking cultural context for the indirection sometimes leads to not understanding why the situation is what it is, the characters and especially the environment are very vivid. You do get a sense of what it was like to sail on ship of the line, of the cramped quarters, the superstition of the crew, the camaraderie and the desire to prove oneself. Even the smaller things, like the necessity of Aubrey micromanaging the point of sail and which sails were unfurled, so as to gain an immediate tactical advantage, are showcased. Definitely an engaging and exciting read, and due to the language, a slow read, which is nice to soak in.

Review: 7
The environment is the strength of this book, top-notch, but it is missing what turns a sequence of events into a Story.