Master and Commander – by Patrick O’Brian

I was a bit apprehensive about starting this book, because all of the people I’d known who had loved it had been men. I wasn’t sure whether or not it would hold much appeal for me as a woman. But once I got into it, I found it difficult to put down. The storyline is engaging, the characters are richly drawn and interesting, and the historical detail is convincing.

Master and Commander

Certainly, I found a lack of strong female characters, but that was made up for by the depth and variety of the male characters I met with. The daring but socially clueless captain, the dry and witty doctor who enjoys chopping things up,  the impassioned and high minded lieutenant—each character shows such unique strengths and foibles. Even the minor characters are memorable: I particularly love the young seaman who composes poems about different aspects of the ship.

I admit to skimming some of the abundance of technical information about ships and early 19th century naval practices. While there was nowhere near the amount of technicality as in, say, Moby Dick), it could still be overwhelming at times. I could see enjoying looking everything up on a second or third reading, but on the first reading I found it to be helpful to keep going with the story. The battle scenes were quite exciting and suspenseful – even without looking up the unfamiliar terminology.

Sailing Ship

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was that the author didn’t feel the need to “baby” the reader. Historical references and sailing terminology are left for the reader look up. At times the story jumps from scene to scene without obvious transition, and the reader has to figure out what’s happened. It makes for an engaging reading experience and a tighter novel – I appreciated the author cutting down on unneeded explanation and imposition into the story.

Overall, I was very impressed. For women with an interest in history and a willingness to overlook the messy lives of sailors when they happen to be on shore, it’s quite an engaging read.

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