The Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian… with Reading Order List
Master and Commander is the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful 21-book historical fiction series known as the “Aubrey-Maturin Series.”
It is also the name of the adventure movie with Russell Crowe, although much of the action in the film was actually derived from books much farther down the list, especially Number 10, The Far Side of the World. So the 21 books are now known by the series title “Master and Commander” as well as “Aubrey-Maturin.” Not too confusing, I hope.
The Aubrey of the beloved books is Jack Aubrey, an officer of the Royal Navy whose heroic exploits we follow through 21 delightful books and much of the Napoleonic Wars. Stephen Maturin is his unlikely sidekick, confidant and best friend… the ship’s surgeon and an intelligence officer whose doings are not always known to Jack Aubrey.
So here we go… off to sea and the farther reaches of the earth. No Dramamine needed. Just bring your imagination and let’s see if I can convince you that Patrick O’Brian’s sea-faring adventures will keep you engrossed – I mean so completely engrossed – that it might be some time before you come up for air. There are 21 books in the series, after all… and not a moment to be lost!
[PS] If you get hooked on the series like I did, you’ll want to bookmark this page for future reference. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books are listed in order below.
[PPS] I don’t normally re-read novels, but this series is so good, I’ve read the entire series 3 times (so far). I catch a different nuance every time and it never, ever bores me.
(1) Master and Commander – Book 1 of the Aubrey-Maturin Series
Imagine yourself sitting in the music room of the Governor’s House on the island of Minorca in the year 1800, listening to a concert in which you are so transported by the music that your right hand moves in time with the violins – up, down, sideways. Ahhhh… bliss.
And then the concert-goer next to you has the audacity to suggest that you were not even keeping time with the music. And then as you gently, quietly hum in unison with the cello pom, pom-pom-pom, poom, your head bobbing in time, an elbow smashes into your ribs and an angry voice hisses at you to “shush.”
For Lieutenant Jack Aubrey, that was one more negative piled on to an already large heap that included his promised command of a ship being taken away at the last moment. Hopes high, then dashed low. A familiar theme throughout these books… and part of what keeps us readers engaged book after book.
But the news turns brighter when Jack receives a commission for a naval vessel – at long last. Not a war-ship, of course; rather a little transport sloop known as the Sophie. He will be its Master and Commander…not yet a Post Captain, eligible to command larger vessels, but it will do for now.
And the surly patron of the arts from the concert turns out to be a trained physician in need of transportation. As “luck” would have it, the Sophie’s previous surgeon has gone to another ship and so Stephen Maturin is invited to become the Sophie’s new surgeon. Stephen is not particularly adept at remembering where to stand when sails need to be raised or how to safely climb aboard the ship after a trip to port and, for a man with a command of so many other languages, the lingo of seamen seems to be somewhat beyond his ability to grasp. On the other hand, he performs wonderfully as a physician and surgeon, keeping wounded sailors alive better than most in his profession.
Jack Aubrey takes command of the Sophie, a rather sluggish boat with an under-manned crew, the remains of its previous crew who were not invited to join the departing captain on his new ship. But Jack is nothing if not resourceful and is able to call in a couple of favors to replenish his manpower, allowing him to set off on his first official voyage, that of convoying a small fleet of merchant ships to Cagliari, an island in the Mediterranean.
This is a humdrum routine for Captain Jack Aubrey, whose first task is to get his gun crews up to speed and his second, to outfit the Sophie to sail much faster. Daily practice at the fourteen 4-pounder cannons accomplishes the first mission. The second mission required a little delicate subterfuge with the navy stores, but it earned the Sophie a new mainyard and much more speed for Jack’s preferred plan of taking prizes. For Jack Aubrey is a master at capturing enemy ships, whether it is part of his naval orders or not. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, they call him, for good reason.
On land, Jack does not function as well as he does at sea. Dr. Maturin, on the other hand, loves his opportunities to go ashore and find new specimens of flora and fauna to inspect and dissect. Maturin’s sea legs are a little slow in coming and the eye that is so keen at birdwatching does not always figure out what is happening in front of him on the ship’s deck, no matter how many times it is patiently explained by one crew member or another. This theme runs through all the books and makes the usually competent Maturin an entirely endearing character. Trepanning the gunner’s brain on the deck of the Sophie is child’s play compared to recalling the names of the 21 flags and multiple masts on the ship.
Aubrey lets his anger and impetuousness get the better of him on land, the main reason his promotions are always slow in arriving, but at sea he is a master in battle planning and quick life-saving action. Ineffectual as a sailor, Maturin otherwise is a master botanist, studious zoologist and resourceful ship’s surgeon. His intelligence work is merely hinted at in the first book, but his importance to government affairs becomes much more evident as the series progresses.
This link takes you to the Sophie’s voyages on a map, as portrayed in Master & Commander.
An invitation into the wonderful world of Aubrey and Maturin
Master and Commander lays the foundation for a deep understanding of man-of-war ships, of naval etiquette and bravery, of early 19th century medical procedures, of close and lasting relationships and long-into-the-night reading. The journeys of the Sophie and the adventures of her captain and crew are a captivating, colorful tapestry created by Patrick O’Brian’s dry, sly wit and exemplary writing.
This first book in the series introduces us to life on the shores of the Mediterranean in the year 1800 and to the very real dangers faced by captain and crew on the oceans of the world, especially in times of war – in this case, war with France and Napoleon. In fact, Jack and his crew are captured by the French toward the end of the book and must face a court-martial for the loss of their beloved Sophie, who now belongs to another navy altogether.
Ups and downs, like the waves on the ocean. High then low, with a few storms and calms interspersed. A life lived boldly. Loves felt deeply. Rewards given handsomely… or taken away by spite. A rich storyline, endearing people and so much to learn. My favorite combination for a fiction novel.
I hope you’ll decide to travel with Jack and Stephen and the Sophie and the Surprise and the loves of their lives… for they are coming into the picture, too. Come… the winds are in our favor – and there is no time to lose.
(2) Post Captain
What’s a destitute sea captain to do when peace is declared? Hide from his creditors on land… or become a temporary substitute captain on another man’s ship? For Jack Aubrey, the choice is clear and he is given the acting command of an awkward vessel called the Polychrest, which had somehow acquired an alcoholic gibbon named Cassandra. New tensions between Aubrey and Maturin increase because of… what else… a woman. And not just any ordinary woman. Diana Villiers is an important part of the story and this second book sets that stage brilliantly.
(3) H.M.S. Surprise
Aubrey and Maturin’s main voyage in Book 3 is a long one: to deliver an emissary of the King of England to the Sultan of Kampong. Their travels take them by way of Bombay, India where Diana Villiers is now living. Jack Aubrey has been given command of an older but reliable vessel, H.M.S. Surprise and his completely competent capabilities at sea are proven over and over on this long, eventful trip.
The action in The Mauritius Command is based on real events during the Napoleonic Wars.
In the novel, the British Navy elevates Captain Jack Aubrey to acting Commodore of a small fleet aimed at taking over some harbors currently occupied by the French in and around the island of Mauritius (east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean). Aubrey, accustomed to being a hands-on captain of a single ship must now organize and placate a number of individual post-captains, each of which has his own advantages and idiosyncrasies.
Watching Captain Aubrey struggle with the politics of the situation and then rise to the occasions as needed is a treat. You feel like cheering by the end of the book when… (oh, I won’t give it away, sorry).
Dealing with Captain Bligh (he was a real naval officer and The Bounty was a real ship). Transporting prisoners to Australia. Spy stuff. Battles at sea. Shipwrecks. And rescues (sort of). Oh yes, icebergs, too. The action in this book never stops. It took me a while to catch up on sleep after staying up late reading this book.
The United States finally declares war on England, but many in the newly fledged country still have ties with Great Britain and aren’t happy with President Madison’s war, as they called the War of 1812 back then. Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin still haven’t made it home, and end up in the United States as prisoners of war after yet another naval battle in which the Americans were victorious. Their escape is fraught with danger, yet thrilling. Oh yes, Diana Villiers features prominently, which adds to the tension and suspense. Another book to keep you reading late into the night.
After escaping from America, Stephen urges Diana Villiers to marry him, so that she may not be an alien on British soil, subject to possible incarceration, since the two countries are at war. When she does not agree, other measures must be taken, including a trip to France, which is also at war with England. Stephen gives a talk at the Institut, and installs Diana with a friend for her own safety.
Jack, in the meanwhile, gets to know his children again, after such a long absence at sea. But, of course, duty calls (by way of Stephen’s intelligence work this time) and the two head for the Baltic on a delicate mission.
Threading their way through treacherous waters, the boat hits a reef and Aubrey and Maturin and their crew are once again in the hands of their enemies… this time the French. But you know that there are 21 books in the series, so an escape is made (this one rather unusual) and the pair are headed back to England once more, with Diana Villiers.
Stephen dutifully asks for her hand in marriage and she says……… (oh, c’mon, I’m not giving that away).
Because of his legal problems at home, Captain Jack Aubrey has accepted a commission to join the blockade squadron at Toulon. The ship he commands is the unseaworthy “Worcester.”
At least he has many of his former crew and Stephen Maturin joining him on this tedious work of sailing back and forth, back and forth… in perfect formation with the flag ship. Jack’s nemesis, Admiral Harte, gives incomplete details to Jack on a delicate mission… one that is bound to fail because of that.
Fortunately, Jack had demanded his orders in writing and he was later given temporary command of his beloved old ship “Surprise” for an even more delicate mission to determine which of three local leaders would best provide port privileges for the Royal Navy while thwarting inroads from the French at the same time. We get to see Aubrey-as-politician at work, with surprising results.
(9) Treason’s Harbor
While waiting for refitting in Malta, the Surprise’s sailors become more and more dissolute, with money to pay for “fancy girls” and liquor. French intelligence, at the same time, is getting increasingly knowledgeable about Royal Navy affairs and Dr. Maturin, meanwhile, is entering into an interesting relationship with a would-be lady spy.
In addition, the identity of a traitor in the naval hierarchy is revealed, but the only ones who know who it is… are us readers. I won’t divulge what happens to “that scrub Admiral Harte” in the book, but Jack’s nemesis finally gets what’s been coming to him through 8 previous books.
Captain Jack Aubrey receives an unexpected commission in his beloved ship Surprise that will take him to “the far side of the world” protecting British whalers from the American ship “Norfolk.”
By the time I was halfway through the book there had already been a pregnancy, two suspected murders, storms and the taking of a prize.
If you saw the movie, you’ll have heard about the ship’s “Jonah.” That’s here, too.
Here’s the link to Master and Commander – the movie in case you’d like to compare stories between book and film.
Master and Commander – the Movie
The action in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is taken from more than one of Patrick O’Brian’s books and primarily from #10 The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe dyed his hair blonde and gained weight for the role, creating a very good facsimile of how I envisioned Captain Jack Aubrey. Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin was altogether too good-looking for the part, given the descriptions of Maturin in the books. But he was still a good foil for Aubrey’s ebullience and sense of duty.
The movie is definitely worth seeing to get the flavor of the times and the sense of being at sea in the early 1800s, without all of the conveniences we now enjoy for our comfort and safety. Captain Aubrey was known for thinking on his feet and Crowe portrays this very well in the film.You can almost smell the gunpowder from the cannons in the battle scenes and I can still see Jack Aubrey with tongue in cheek discussing the “lesser of two weevils” with the officers at dinner.
If you’ve read any of the books, you’ll appreciate seeing how the movie portrayed Captain Aubrey’s steward “Killin” and also his coxswain “Bonden,” both of whom were very well cast. Tom Pullings, too. The replica ship Surprise used in the movie is now on display at the San Diego Maritime Museum.
UPDATE: I watched the film again last year (had to get a DVD copy from the library; mine was a videotape and my VCR is long gone) and so much of the action feels just like O’Brian’s descriptions in the books. Lots of material from the books is crammed into the movie, but I enjoyed seeing these “old friends” in action, rather than just imagining them.
Books 11-21 Are Listed Below:
I included Amazon links for the first 10 books in the series, but for the next 11, here’s a direct link to Amazon’s listing of the Aubrey-Maturin books on Patrick O’Brian’s author page.
(11) The Reverse of the Medal
(12) The Letter of Marque
(13) The Thirteen Gun Salute
(14) The Nutmeg of Consolation
(15) The Truelove
(16) The Wine-Dark Sea
(17) The Commodore
(18) The Yellow Admiral
(19) The Hundred Days
(20) Blue at the Mizzen
(21) Unfinished final book **
** Patrick O’Brian was working on book “21” when he died in 2000. Diehard Aubrey-Maturin fans were grateful for these few chapters of what, we’re sure, would have been a glorious closing to the Aubrey-Maturin tales.