O’Brian was not only a great storyteller but was as well a meticulous researcher. The series is a treasure for its complexity of plot, depth of characterizations, and fascinating period detail about flora, fauna, food, drink, and sailing ships. His use of authentic language and nautical terms is impressive, though it takes some getting used to (but I now know quite a bit about the weather gauge, slipping one’s anchor, and the danger of a lee shore). And there’s plenty of history and geography, music and mores, and of course battle strategy and tactics.
Fame and fortune came late to O’Brian, when he was more than half-way through the series whose first volume, Master and Commander, was published in 1969. Living modestly and reclusively with his beloved wife, he wrote for decades in a small house in a French Catalan village on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border. When he passed away in January of 2000 he was partway through the 21st book, which has been published as-is up to the point he left off the last time at his desk, with alternating pages of a photocopy of a single hand-written page paired with a typed transcription.
In 2003, director Peter Weir premiered a beautiful, richly-layered film which drew on a number of story elements from different parts of the series – “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” And of note, the handwritten manuscripts for eighteen of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, as well some first editions and other pieces from O’Brian’s body of work, were acquired by the special collections Lilly Library at Indiana University, where I was fortunate to see them all displayed at the 2008 exhibition “Blue at the Mizzen” (which is the title of the last full volume in the series).
For well over 15 years I have been enjoying this long tale; whenever I get through the last volume I just start all over at the beginning. I always have a book going, and I find I read it sporadically in fits and starts, daily for stretches, and then maybe not at all for a few weeks while consumed by other books; but I am never very long away from the story. If the joy has not yet been yours, by all means get the helpful lexicon and the geography guide, start at the beginning, and stick with it in the first three volumes and let O'Brian hit his stride. As Lucky Jack Aubrey is wont to say, there is not a moment to lose.