Why it works: “Master & Commander” by Patrick O’Brian

by | Jan 7, 2020 | Writing Advice | 10 comments

A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. Why it works is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.

Today’s entry: Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian.

First, I’ll be honest, Master & Commander is at times an incredibly baffling novel. There’s an overwhelming level of seafaring jargon with little explanation or context, the perspective shifts around capriciously, and there’s confusing description like this:

Mahon, and the Sophie surrounded by her own smoke, firing both broadsides all round and one over in salute to the admiral’s flag aboard the Foudroyant, whose imposing mass lay just between the Pigtail Stairs and the ordnance wharf.

I have literally no idea what this means, even within its context. And yet I love Master & Commander!

Here’s why I think it works.

Jack’s enthusiasm is contagious

It’s safe to say that there is no character in literature who loves their job more than Jack loves being a master and commander.

He is SO PSYCHED to gain his promotion and he loves the job more than life itself. He relishes the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and navigate danger. He’s just so unbelievably excited.

I mean, look what happens when he gets shot:

His head jerked sideways, his hat darted across the deck: a musket-ball from the corsair had nicked his ear. It was perfectly numb under his investigating hand, and it was pouring with blood. He stepped down from the rail, craning his head out sideways to bleed to windward, while his right hand sheltered his precious epaulette from the flow. ‘Killick,’ he shouted bending to keep his eyes on the galley under the taut arch of the square mainsail, ‘bring me an old coat and another handkerchief.’

I love this moment! He gets shot and the only thing he can think about is not getting blood on his beloved epaulette, the stripes that denote his rank. Jack’s pride in his role and his imperviousness to danger are on glrorious display.

There’s another moment where Jack goes to talk to the more squeamish Stephen, the ship’s doctor and his frienemy, to offer him a chance to partake in an impending battle. Jack’s excitement leaps off the page:

…’my dear sir, do you choose to go below or should you rather stay on deck? Perhaps it would divert you to go to into the maintop with a musket, along with the sharpshooters, and have a bang at the villains?

When a character cares about something it’s totally infectious. We start caring too. We want what they want. And I often found myself bursting with pride for Jack as he repeatedly overcomes long odds.

Descriptions are infused with personality

While there were times when I didn’t track action scenes or what everyone was doing with the riggings, O’Brian really nails the descriptions in key moments.

Here’s how O’Brian first describes the beguiling Carmen:

She was a fine dashing woman, and without being either pretty or beautiful she gave the impression of being both, mostly from the splendid way she carried her head.

After Jack first takes his new crew for a spin around the harbor under the watchful gaze of his rivals on shore, O’Brian infuses the description with relief in the moment they turn back home:

A gentle push from above heeled the Sophie over, then another and another, each more delightfully urgent until it was one steady thrust; she was under way, and all along her side there sang a run of living water.

“There sang a run of living water!” So good.

I might have liked a little more clarity throughout, but O’Brian knows how to make the events come alive when it really matters.

Authenticity goes a long way

Sure, I’ve complained about the level of seafaring jargon, but O’Brian leaves no doubt that he knows the world of 19th century Napoleonic War naval battles backwards and forwards.

O’Brian’s command of the world of his novel is incredible and it’s a wonderfully immersive experience.

Readers will stick with you through some extensive physical description, even if they don’t understand everything, if it feels like they’re in confident and capable hands.

Have you read Master & Commander? What did you think?

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10 Comments

  1. Wendy

    Thanks for this, Nathan. Your comments were intriguing but didn’t move me much. I know what you’re saying, and I agree that the character of Jack is vividly brought alive on the page and so is his world. But, for me now, the main thrust of the story is infantile. Some bloke playing ships and killing people whose perspective he doesn’t understand.
    I really appreciated your comments on the previous post illustrating how to nail your character’s first impression. This is important. If the mc doesn’t grab the reader’s sympathy and interest quickly then all is lost, and they won’t read on. Too much else going on in everyone’s life too bother with the mediocre.
    Thanks again for these invaluable insights.

    Reply
    • Wendy

      Sorry, Nathan, I was trying to say that it was the story line, or plot, which you described that I found unmoving, not your critique of why the story worked. Haven’t read it, myself.

      Reply
  2. Marilynn Byerly

    My brother who was a boat geek and gifted sailor loved this series for its authenticity, but I’ve never read them. I have read the “Horatio Hornblower” series, which is the supposed origin of James Kirk of STAR TREK, and, it was great storytelling.

    Reply
  3. Patsy Shepherd

    The whole series of Aubrey/Maturin books (all 21 of them) are among my favorite books of all time. One of the things that works the best for me is the evolving relationship between the two characters. Jack’s enthusiasm is beautifully balanced by Stephen’s maturity and worldliness, whereas that latter quality is offset by what a dork Stephen is about what goes on on a ship. And the nuances of all of this are superbly written. I’ve laughed till I’ve cried at Jack’s frustration when Stephen is being hoisted from one ship to another; I’ve cried for entirely opposite reasons when O’Brian tackles the unfairness of but necessity for strict (often harsh) maritime law. And I have kicked myself for years because I didn’t carefully note in which book Stephen masterfully describes the problems that arise when someone (in this case, I think, a guest on one of Jack’s ships) who had authored a work and wanted it read and critiqued–except the only critique the neophyte author would entertain (as is true for us all in our heart of hearts) was indistinguishable from praise. As I say, I read that once, thoroughly appreciated it but forgot to make a note of where it was, and have not found it again. At some point, however, since I’m making the rounds through the series for a second time, I expect to run into it again. By the way, these books are truly enhanced if you listen to the audio version read by Patrick Tull. No one was ever better-matched to read this author’s written words than Tull. Killick, especially, is even more unforgettable! Jack is forever hollering, “Killick! I say, Killick, man!” And he forever gets ready for one more shout and then turns in surprise to find Killick at his elbow. WONDERFUL series!

    Reply
    • Vivianne

      Heh heh, I completely agree with you. My personal fave was the lesser of two weevils 😀 😀 😀

      Reply
  4. Evan Geller MD FACS

    I’ve read just about everything O’Brian has written, including twice through the 22 volume M&C series. Your critique points up the writing’s beating heart and its cardinal flaw–O’Brian’s attention to every detail and unqualified authenticity. As you most likely know, O’Brian based every maneuver and battle action depicted in his writings on his research at the Royal Naval archives, much from primary sources. It is why the series is generally regarded as the best historical fiction ever written. Your comment regarding the main character’s enthusiasm being his most endearing quality is spot on and makes up for a great deal of ambivalence in other areas of the writing. Thank you for your always intriguing insights. Try reading the work again–I assure you it only grows more enjoyable.

    Reply
  5. JOHN T. SHEA

    I have yet to read any of O’Brian’s novels, not because I’m not interested but because I’m VERY interested and probably could not read just one! I greatly enjoyed the 2003 movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” which is based loosely on several of the novels.

    I do actually understand the nautical jargon in the extract you quote, but I try to explain such terms and phrases in my own writing. Nonetheless, I follow the wise dictum that, if one must chose between boredom and confusion, confusion is the lesser of two evils (or weevils, as O’Brian would have it!).

    Reply
  6. Vivianne

    Nathan, I have to say, that describing Stephen Maturin as ‘squeamish’ is soooo far off the mark.

    Reply
    • Nathan Bransford

      Well, in the first book he’s squeamish about battle, not necessarily squeamish entirely (and certainly not squeamish about his work as a surgeon).

      Reply
  7. Eve in Vermont

    Have I read Master and Commander?! Oh, man! I’ve read the entire series of 20 1/2 books (the last one is unfinished, but who cares?) three times and am sure I’ll start again in the next couple of years. As a reader I felt somewhat at sea (wak wak!) with all the British Navy jargon and shipbuilding jargon and Napoleonic War jargon and culinary jargon and 18th-century medical jargon, but some of the terms I picked up along the way and others I researched using Dean King’s wonderful books, starting with “A Sea of Words.” My very favorite gloss on O’Brian’s opus, however, is the cookbook cobbled up by a couple of madwomen, called “Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.” It contains recipes for every dish mentioned in the series, including the boiled seagull shit that Maturin lived on while stranded on a rock in the ocean.

    O’Brian had such a gift for getting personalities across! Aubrey bustles in, all jolly, and says, “What are you drinking, Stephen?”
    Maturin: “Gin and water, cold.”
    Aubrey: “What a godforsaken melancholy tope. Let us call for Champagne!”

    It’s as neat a summary of two disparate men as I’ve ever seen.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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