Last night I forced myself to sleep at 4am, despite not having finished Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. This afternoon I finished it, and immediately bought the next volume in the series. Yes, they are just as good as everyone says.
It seems I can’t copy/paste from the iOS Kindle app, grumble grump, so here is a much shorter extract than I would otherwise have included, painstakingly copied by hand. Stephen Maturin, a physician and a landsman, is having the niceties of masts and rigging explained to him by Mowett, the master’s mate.
“It is a pleasure to hear a man who thoroughly understands his profession. You are very exact, sir.”
“Oh, I hope the captains will say the same, sir,” cried Mowett. “When next we put into Gibraltar I am to go for my lieutenant’s examination again. Three senior captains sit upon you; and last time a very devilish captain asked me how many fathoms I should need for the main crowfoot, and how long the euphroe was. I could tell him now: it is fifty fathoms of three-quarter-inch line, though you would never credit it, and the euphroe is fourteen inches. I believe I could tell him anything that can even be attempted to be measured, except perhaps for the new mainyard, and I shall measure that with my tape before dinner. Should you like to hear some dimensions, sir?”
“I should like it of all things.”
This gentle humour runs through much of the novel. (As for instance Jack Audrey’s response when Stephen corrects his suggestion that Catalan might be a putain: “Patois — just so. Yet I swear the other is a word: I learnt it somewhere.”) Yet O’Brian manages to switch fluidly into frantic action sequences (Napoleonic sea battles confirm the boredom/terror trope of combat experience) and psychological pressure when the tone needs to change.
The characters are multifaceted and by turns likeable and frustrating; the action is fairly unrelenting (it kept me up until 4am, after all), and the language is a constant joy. The only thing I can say against it is that the series continues to 21 volumes, which is mainly a problem for me since I don’t seem to be able to stop reading them.