Recommendation: Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin Series

I’ve been reading this series on and off since I was a teenager. I got started on them through my mother, who also got my brother and sister hooked. My sister bought my brother and sister-in-law the complete set as a wedding present.

After a bit of a break in reading them, I’m finally attempting to read through all 20 books in a row and complete my collection of them.

I’ve been really enjoying my trip through them, despite this being at least my second or third time through most of the books. I just finished #12, and thought I would recommend them to you all.

Here’s the Wikipedia summation:

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of nautical historical novels—20 completed and one unfinished—by Patrick O’Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars and centering on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and intelligence agent. The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last finished novel in 1999. The 21st novel of the series, left unfinished at O’Brian’s death in 2000, appeared in print in late 2004. The series received considerable international acclaim and most of the novels reached The New York Times Best Seller list. These novels comprise the heart of the canon of an author often compared to Jane Austen, C. S. Forester and other British authors central to the English literature canon.

Why do I love them so much? That’s a good question.

First of all, they’re immersive. The amount of historical detail and period British sailing jargon thrown in the books is impressive. It creates a whole rich world and makes you feel like you’re actually living in the time, without judgement or any sort of remove. It also gives you the opportunity to learn a whole bunch of jargon you’ll never use. Have you ever wanted to be able to bandy about the phrase “abaft the bits”, well, today’s your day. There’s also a huge number of references and allusions made to various western authors that I completely miss almost every time. I just stumbled on this website, listing all of them, and frankly I am shocked at my own ignorance. There’s a huge number of things to look up and learn about.

They’re exciting. Patrick O’Brian writes an excellent action scene, and there are a number of scenes that I remember vividly. They’re not too over the top action hero though. People are human, and suffer human wounds and die.

They’re funny in a very very dry way. The humor is bone dry, which is something I like. There are funny scenes and moments, but they don’t call attention to themselves.

They’re very human. I think I read this somewhere about the books, and while I can’t exactly express what it means, it struck me as a good description. They’re overall kind and hopeful and while bad things happen to many many people, they’re never morose or depressing.

Overall, I would highly recommend them.

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Thanks for the rec @spike, this looks really good! Not at all familiar with the series (though I think I saw the movie Master and Commander a while back.) I really enjoy dry humor and wordplay as well as good action scenes so I feel like I’d enjoy these. This may not be fully accurate but feels like kind of one part Moby Dick, one part Jeeves.

Slightly tangential but this made me think of Redwall, I looked it up and similar length, 22 books in the series. I never read the complete series, maybe half of them, but at some point would be fun to revisit. It can be really fun to get lost in an extended world, living with a certain setting / tone / characters for months on end!

Nice that these are both critically acclaimed and, from the sound of it, actually fun to read! Not Proust, and not Harry Potter, but some kind of happy middle ground.

Haha from the Wikipedia entry, I like this part re: one reviewer’s reaction:

Gary Krist is very critical of the plot of the books, suggesting that the books are full of elements of “pop fiction” and O’Brian’s excessive “delight in the sheer specificity of seafaring mechanics.” However, he did not deny the qualities that “push it close to that great, fuzzy art-entertainment meridian” including character development and at times, “the sense of being in the presence of an active, complex, and compassionate intelligence.”

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It should be noted that Gary Krist made that criticism in 1994, so who knows what “pop fiction” meant then. Now, I wouldnt call them “pop fiction”. Certainly they’re not dark and serious books about dark and serious subject matter, but I don’t find them especially contrived or lazy in any way.

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I’ve heard that these are amazing! Do you have any recommendations for where to start if you don’t necessarily want to commit to the whole series from beginning to end just yet? Which book is the best? Any favorite parts not to miss?

(As a side note, I have to mention that one of my first encounters of this series was of someone in the world of fandom discussing Aubrey and Maturin’s relationship as subtextually romantic…hahaha. Speaks to a deep and well written bond.)

Also, Gary Kirst sounds like a real snob. What’s wrong with pop fiction? Does he hate fun???


I would start at the beginning and take them as they come. While the books do stand on their own to a decent extent, there are arcs and plot points that play out over multiple books. I think I would try to read at least the first two before making a decision about the series (I dont remember being blown away by the first one). Like I said, I’ve been reading these books for years, dipping in and out, this is my first time working my way through the series in order and one go. You can certainly dip in and out.

In terms of favorites, I love books 2-5, 7, 8, 12. My mother (the expert), says they start to go down hill towards the end of the series, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I tend to like the books that are more about the sailing adventures, rather than Maturin’s intelligence activities. The ones I didn’t mention are still good, and still have lots of moments that I love and remember, they’re just not my favorites.

I wouldnt read Aubrey/Maturin’s relationship as romantic. They certainly grow to have a deep relationship, and live quite closely together. To me, Calling it romantic, however, seems to say that men are unable to have deep relationships with each other that are not romantic.

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Haha, yeah, I think it was just fandom being fandom, getting a little slash happy for fun…

Honestly, the series provides for way more interesting slashfic than aubrey/maturin anyway