I’m on my quarterdeck attending to duty, I assure you, sir…


Bud, and then Bryan, raised the alarm yesterday over my absence. Bryan wrote:

No, I haven’t heard from him at all. I even asked him for a book recommendation on the Aubrey-Maturin series, and he never responded.

I hope he’s okay.

That sounds alarming, indeed. But come on, y’all know that I frequently fail to post on the weekend, and yesterday I had business in my hometown of Bennettsville and didn’t get back to the office until 4:30 or so — at which time I promptly gave y’all an Open Thread with more topics than ever before.

But yeah, there was a lot going on over the weekend in politics, so it seemed weird for me not to be commenting, but I assure you I was attending to duty, for the most part, and am now back aboard, pacing the quarterdeck and scanning the horizon for a suitable prize.

Oh, and as to Bryan’s question:

I’m picking out my beach reading in advance. I’m thinking about starting the Aubrey-Maturin series. (Yeah. I’ve never read those books. Hangs head in shame.)
Which three would you recommend starting with, and in which order?

Here’s my response — and I hope others among you will be interested as well, because I’m always glad to have someone else to discuss the books with:

Start from the beginning. They are chronological and sort of like one super-long novel, although O’Brian didn’t intend it when he started out:

  1. Master and Commander — Nothing at all like the movie, which was actually based very loosely on the 10th book, The Far Side of the World. It starts with Lt. Jack Aubrey being assigned to his first command, the 14-gun sloop Sophie, and meeting his soon-to-be best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin. The actions that sloop engages in track closely with Cochrane’s with the Speedy, including the memorable fight against the Gamo, renamed in the book the Cacafuego. Which you’ll recognize as scatological if you talk foreign, which Maturin does and Aubrey doesn’t. (O’Brian would later say that if he had known the series would go on so long he would have started earlier, with Jack as a midshipman. It apparently didn’t occur to him to go back and write prequels after the series gained a following. He was scrupulously careful to keep to a realistic time frame from the first book to the final fall of Bonaparte.)
  2. Post Captain — This one is in parts weirdly like Jane Austen, in which our heroes, stuck on shore during the brief peace with France, try their hand at being country gentlemen and become romantically entangled with a family of young ladies reminiscent of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, but with interesting variations. But don’t worry, lads — there’s still a good bit of action here and there — and quite a lot of character development important to later books. This and the first book are the two longest, and if there’s one in the series that will seem perhaps a tad too long, it’s this one, but be patient — the pace quickens after this. And the good bits are very rewarding. Be advised that the relationships with the ladies severely test Jack’s and Stephen’s friendship. (A constant theme of the books is that Jack is far better off at sea, well out of the sight of land and away from such complications — while Stephen, ever the lubber, is least at home aboard ship.)
  3. HMS Surprise — For the first time Jack commands the frigate he will love the most for the rest of his career. You also learn more about Stephen’s secret life — he is something more than an accomplished physician and respected naturalist. This is one of my very favorites in the series, chock full o’ action and human drama from Port Mahon to Bombay.

So, there you have it. Get busy reading — quick’s the word and sharp’s the action.

I’ll expect a full report upon your return. Before you have your clerk write it out fair, have Stephen look it over — he’s a learned cove.

Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril…

9 thoughts on “I’m on my quarterdeck attending to duty, I assure you, sir…

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, no! I initially referred to HMS Sophie as a “12-gun sloop!” I’ve fixed it now. Whew…

    Four-pounders, of course. If I recall correctly, Cochrane observed that he could put an entire broadside (of the original Speedy) in the large pockets of his uniform coat…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    I ran the same question past another friend of mine who’s really into the series, and his answer was:

    “Oh man, great question. If you’re ok with not starting at the beginning, I recommend #3: HMS Surprise. It’s where O’Brian picks up his narrative flow. If you do the audiobook thing, I highly recommend Patrick Tull’s performances. Another favorite of mine, and early enough in the series is 5: Desolation Island. 5 and 6 are a nicely matched pair if you want to read two consecutively.”


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You COULD do that. And O’Brian wrote the books so that he sneaks in essential background info in the initial pages of each novel making it POSSIBLE to follow along without having read previous books.

      But I wouldn’t. And it’s a little hard to explain why unless you’ve at least read the first chapter or two of the first book. It’s really wonderful in terms of the way it introduces the two characters and starts developing their friendship and their individual characters from the very first page. No mucking about; it jumps right in. And it contains comic touches that are very enjoyable — setting the tone for a constant thread through the series.

      After you’ve read a few of the books, you’ll become nostalgic about that initial meeting, and if you’re like me, you’ll pick up a copy of Master and Commander whenever you see one lying about and read those first five or ten pages, just for the pleasure of rereading them.

      Also… While HMS Surprise is one of the best in the series, the very best passages in it will be less meaningful if you haven’t grown accustomed to the characters.

      I’m trying to avoid a spoiler here… I’ll just say that the two protagonists find themselves in deadly danger very early in that third novel, the intensity of which is amplified by the fact that these guys have become your friends over the course of the first two books. That’s the most intense and ultimately enjoyable part of the whole novel, I think. (In fact, in a way it may be the most emotionally gripping situation in the entire series, or at least high in the Top Five.) It’s another passage I’ve read over and over. And I would hate to have read it for the first time without having established that relationship beforehand. It would lose something.

      So… You CAN approach it as your other friend suggests. But I think that later, once you were a confirmed fan, you’d regret it.

      As I indicated, I think if you started, for whatever reason, with Post Captain, you might not get into the series at all. But Master and Commander is SO good that it fortifies you to get through the slower bits of Post Captain (which, by the way, has a VERY satisfying ending). And then, after you’re done with them both, you are ready to fully appreciate HMS Surprise

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I may seem to be going overboard to people who are not fans. But these guys are particular friends of mine; we’ve spent years sailing the world together through all kinds of experiences. And the best way to establish such a relationship with them is to experience it as they do, from the start.

        As I noted before, O’Brian could probably have made himself more money by going back and cranking out some prequels. But he was fastidiously true to history and to following his characters in real time. I think we should do the same.

    2. Mark Stewart

      Start at the beginning. There’s a little slogging here and there, but they go very fast and the knowledge will help you navigate through the remainder of the series.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll start at the beginning. May not even wait for my vacation to start.

    By the way, I’m almost done with my WWI book. You done with the book about the Ardennes Offensive?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good for you! You’ll be glad you signed on!

      Now, Mr. Pullings, quickly — have the plank pulled in before our new shipmate changes his mind. He may be a landsman, but I’m sure he can pull on a rope as well as the next man.

      Now, let’s get underway and see if we can’t get in some gunnery practice before the dogwatch…

      1. Mark Stewart

        Pull on a rope! Good grief. One coils rope, and one works a line…

        Even Mr. Pullings would be very clear on that – though certainly not Maturin, ever.


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