Patrick O’Brian, Aubrey & Maturin series (introduction)

We use the term „genre literature” to describe fantasy and s/f, but it’s, of course, not precisely correct. Literature may be divided into genres according to technique, tone, content or even length (as Wikipedia tells us). That being said, fantasy and s/f often self-identifies itself as “genre” in opposition to so-called “literary fiction”. As long, as we remember that there’s nothing inherently worse about f&s/f and many of its examples are much more ambitious than “regular” novels, there’s nothing wrong with using this term. Just as long as there is no hint of self-deprecation.

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But it’s not going to be another post about theory of fantasy. Just a short trip into another genre. Maritime fiction, a formidable genre of its own, is a sub-genre of adventure novels, with often a dash of historical fiction. On example, possibly most famous, is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, depicting its protagonist’s naval career in Napoleonic Wars era. Often filmed (once with Gregory Peck!), admired by Churchill, it’s a great fun. It inspired many followers. There is “Hornblower on land” (Cornwell’s Sharpe, played by Sean Bean in tv series), several “Hornblowers in space” – including Weber’s Honor Harrington series, McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and even Star Trek – apparently for Roddenberry it was a huge inspiration while inventing Kirk himself (thanks Wikipedia!). Honor H. is a great review waiting to be written by me, one day, but lets concentrate on historical Royal Navy, for now.

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Not so long ago, while researching sea-versions of Honor Harrington (yes, I started at the end, and decided to read my way back to the source), I’ve discovered another great series. Aubrey & Maturin, by Patrick O’Brian. As much adventure as in Hornblower, even more history and seamanship trivia. I think I’ll buy a compendium just to be able to check all the ship parts and sail types. By you don’t need to know that to enjoy reading (or listening to, as I do).

Published 1969-1999 (and the final one, unfinished, posthumously, in 2004), 21 novels, almost twice the length of Hornblower. Two main protagonists, and friends, Jack Aubrey, English, a Royal Navy officer, and Stephen Maturin, half Irish/half Catalan, a surgeon and a spy. They travel the world, often fighting, usually the French. While on land, they romance and deal with financial troubles. Land parts are heavily influenced by… Jane Austen, who else, I find her influence everywhere recently. Adventures on sea are better, but by adding descriptions of our heroes’ other struggles author gives us fully developed, multi-dimensional characters and fuller description of the times. And strong female characters. That wouldn’t be possible, in historical novel, should we stay onboard all the time. In fantasy or s/f – that’s different matter. Honor Harrington, the greatest space admiral, is a woman. And so are some of the officers of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (of a rare “Hornblower on a dragon” kind, I’m excitedly awaiting delivery of a beautiful hardcover omnibus of the first three novels). In Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Era, no such thing. After all, women on ship are bad luck 😛

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I’m one-seventh into the series so I cannot claim to know too much. But, so far, Sophie Williams and Diana Villers proved to be strong female characters in a way female characters can be strong in a realistic historical novel. Not trying to sneak into a ship in male clothes to enlist, but living their lives in a XIX-cent. British society and trying to retain a level of self-determination. They are not prizes for male protagonists, but characters with mind of their own. But they are of secondary importance, its a novel about a friendship and lives of Aubrey and Maturin.

Aubrey is a career naval officer. Incredibly brave warrior, great seaman and inspiring leader. Unmatched in naval combat, more than able to lead a short expedition on land to raid a port or break a friend from prison. On land – naïve and occasionally shy, unable to manage his finances properly, clumsily pursuing aforementioned Sophie (hopefully they’ll get married in vol. 4 and O’Brian will concentrate on fighting 😉 ).

Maturin – a scientist, polyglot, catholic (no advantage in GB of XIX cent.). Equally unsuccessful in love, divides his time between his medical duties on board successive Aubrey’s ships and spying for Naval Intelligence.

They share passion for wine, food (although Maturin enjoys both in moderation, while Aubrey… needs reminding, that a fighting man should stay in shape) and music, regularly playing violin/cello duets. With Maturin being as subtle as Aubrey direct, they often complement each other, and learn to appreciate each other despite occasional falling-outs.

I won’t go into details of their voyages and campaigns, they are many and diverse, not only around Napoleon-dominated Europe – as shown in one movie version out there, Master and Commander with Russell Crowe (Aubrey) and Paul Bettany (Maturin), with main action taking place around South America.

Books offer nice view of the society of the period, of Royal Navy at the height of its power, of a very interesting era of history in a very accessible form. There are no dragons and no spaceships, but it’s a great series. Reading a few books like that lets us fully appreciate fantasy and s/f novels inspired by Forester and O’Brian.

Score: 8/10 [volumes 1-3]

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5 thoughts on “Patrick O’Brian, Aubrey & Maturin series (introduction)

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