Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian, the action is confusing and O'Brian is obsessed with the minutiae of 1800s maritime life to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't want to tell a story; he wants to show off his research. What's worse, he doesn't even want you to understand what he's writing because his baffling descriptions of how a sailing ship works are intended to show that he's cleverer than you. Being confusing isn't simply an error: it's intentional.

So there are some fascinating actions fought, but O'Brian skips over them so he can get back to the really important business of describing how the topgallants are lanyarded through the larboard fo'c'sle or some other such nonsense.

Characters are introduced by other characters talking about them, so we don't get to learn about their personality; we simply have it explained in a style befitting a school report. O'Brian is clearly an exponent of the 'tell-don't-show' school of writing, and his characterisation is shallow. One of the most important relationships in the novel - that between Aubrey and Dillon - goes sour for barely explained reasons, and the dramatic tension that this could have created is lost by Dillon simply being written out of the book without any resolution, as if the author realised he had an interesting human story developing and wanted to kill it before it got in the way of another few paragraphs about rigging.

The blurb on the back of my copy includes a tribute from [a:Amanda Foreman|183491|Amanda Foreman|], which is worth quoting because it describes what a book such as this should do but utterly fails to do:
His novels … embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men's lives, the uncertain fears that plague their lives; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.

This is staggering, because O'Brian deliberately fails to do any of these things. Had he bothered with them, then Master & Commander would have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it's frustratingly half-baked.

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