Customer Reviews: Post Captain (Vol. Book 2) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 26, 2003
Some critics have referred to the Aubrey/Maturin books as one long novel united not only by their historical setting but also by the central plot element of the Aubrey/Maturin friendship. Having read these fine books over a period of several years, I decided to evaluate their cumulative integrity by reading them consecutively in order of publication over a period of a few weeks. This turned out to be a rewarding enterprise. For readers unfamiliar with these books, they describe the experiences of a Royal Navy officer and his close friend and traveling companion, a naval surgeon. The experiences cover a broad swath of the Napoleonic Wars and virtually the whole globe.
Rereading all the books confirmed that O'Brian is a superb writer and that his ability to evoke the past is outstanding. O'Brian has numerous gifts as a writer. He is the master of the long, careful description, and the short, telling episode. His ability to construct ingenious but creditable plots is first-rate, probably because he based much of the action of his books on actual events. For example, some of the episodes of Jack Aubrey's career are based on the life of the famous frigate captain, Lord Cochrane. O'Brian excels also in his depiction of characters. His ability to develop psychologically creditable characters through a combination of dialogue, comments by other characters, and description is tremendous. O'Brien's interest in psychology went well beyond normal character development, some books contain excellent case studies of anxiety, depression, and mania.
Reading O'Brien gives vivid view of the early 19th century. The historian Bernard Bailyn, writing of colonial America, stated once that the 18th century world was not only pre-industrial but also pre-humanitarian (paraphrase). This is true as well for the early 19th century depicted by O'Brien. The casual and invariable presence of violence, brutality, and death is a theme running through all the books. The constant threats to life are the product not only of natural forces beyond human control, particularly the weather and disease, but also of relative human indifference to suffering. There is nothing particularly romantic about the world O'Brien describes but it also a certain grim grandeur. O'Brien also shows the somewhat transitional nature of the early 19th century. The British Navy and its vessals were the apogee of what could be achieved by pre-industrial technology. This is true both of the technology itself and the social organization needed to produce and use the massive sailing vessals. Aubrey's navy is an organization reflecting its society; an order based on deference, rigid hierarchy, primitive notions of honor, favoritism, and very, very corrupt. At the same time, it was one of the largest and most effective bureaucracies in human history to that time. The nature of service exacted great penalities for failure in a particularly environment, and great success was rewarded greatly. In some ways, it was a ruthless meritocracy whose structure and success anticipates the great expansion of government power and capacity seen in the rest of the 19th century.
O'Brian is also the great writer about male friendship. There are important female characters in these books but since most of the action takes place at sea, male characters predominate. The friendship between Aubrey and Maturin is the central armature of the books and is a brilliant creation. The position of women in these books is ambiguous. There are sympathetic characters, notably Aubrey's long suffering wife. Other women figures, notably Maturin's wife, leave a less positive impression. On board ship, women tend to have a disruptive, even malign influence.
How did O'Brian manage to sustain his achievement over 20 books? Beyond his technical abilities as a writer and the instrinsic interest of the subject, O'Brien made a series of very intelligent choices. He has not one but two major protagonists. The contrasting but equally interesting figures of Aubrey and Maturin allowed O'Brien to a particularly rich opportunity to expose different facets of character development and to vary plots carefully. This is quite difficult and I'm not aware of any other writer who has been able to accomplish such sustained development of two major protagonists for such a prolonged period. O'Brian's use of his historical setting is very creative. The scenes and events in the books literally span the whole globe as Aubrey and Maturin encounter numerous cultures and societies. The naval setting allowed him also to introduce numerous new and interesting characters. O'Brian was able to make his stories attractive to many audiences. Several of these stories can be enjoyed as psychological novels, as adventure stories, as suspense novels, and even one as a legal thriller. O'Brian was also a very funny writer, successful at both broad, low humor, and sophisticated wit. Finally, O'Brian made efforts to link some of the books together. While a number are complete in themselves, others form components of extended, multi-book narratives. Desolation Island, Fortune of War, and The Surgeon's Mate are one such grouping. Treason's Harbor, The Far Side of the World, and The Reverse of the Medal are another. The Letter of Marque and the ensuing 4 books, centered around a circumnavigation, are another.
Though the average quality of the books is remarkably high, some are better than others. I suspect that different readers will have different favorites. I personally prefer some of the books with greater psychological elements. The first book, Master and Commander, is one of my favorites. The last 2 or 3, while good, are not as strong as earlier books. I suspect O'Brian's stream of invention was beginning to diminish. All can be read profitably as stand alone works though there is definitely something to be gained by reading in consecutive order.
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on August 10, 2000
"Post Captain" is the second in Patrick O'Brian's epic 20-volume 19th-century maritime series. Captain Jack Aubrey, who made and lost a fortune in the first book, spends this book on the run. On the run from France as war comes, from debtor's prison throughout, and from the entanglements of romance. His shotgun-approach to courtship leads to a near-disastrous conflict with his best friend, the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, whose own secret life slowly unfolds behind Aubrey's back.
This is a wonderful book, not a typical novel in the sense that it does not open questions in the beginning and then answer them by the end. Instead, it is a linear narrative that ends on a cliff-hanger just begging for a sequel. O'Brian's writing is crisp and spare. The characters are fully-developed human beings, the action is exciting. The book is hard to put down, but the best thing is that there are eighteen more to follow.
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on November 5, 1999
What absolutely delicious reading this is! Master and Commander was excellent. This is even better. I cannot believe how very, very funny O'Brian can be!
There is a little scene in the beginning of this book where he briefly describes Jack's horse, a "sullen gray gelding" who spends most of his time "mourning his lost stones", and the horse's train of thought, something like, "Sits too far forward at a jump, I'll have him off sooner or later... Oh, a mare! A mare!" I just laughed myself to tears.
It is rare to find a book that has such a rich blend of various ingredients. O'Brian's insights into the wide variety of human personality (not to mention equine!), his quirky sense of humor, his excellent portrayal of the ways of life in that time, the politics, the navies, the ships, all are tied together, and blend beautifully into this absorbing human drama.
I think I'll have to read them all!
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on May 26, 2000
Post Captain is the second in the Aubrey/Maturin series and perhaps the first written with the knowledge that it was part of a series. O'Brian's first novel in the series was published shortly after C.S. Forester's death and the publication of Pope's and Kent's first novels in their series of wooden ships and iron men. O'Brian found a different niche within the genre and one that ultimately led to his recognition as a serious author of historical novels. If one has read Pope or Kent and even Forester, then the reader might have some difficulty getting into O'Brian's novels. If one accepts that O'Brian is a longer read and that the emphasis is more on character and historicity than violent action then one can enjoy this novel thoroughly.
I read the first book in the series, Master and Commander, and was disappointed. I enjoyed Post Captain more. Perhaps that was due to knowing what to expect and perhaps it is because Post Captain is better than its predecessor. However, it is not your typical naval action adventure. In fact, the first few chapters sounded a bit like Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy's perspective. The fact is that O'Brian writes well enough to pull it off. Post Captain does pick up when war is declared and Aubrey goes back to sea.
One area of conflict that I found strangely missing in Master and Commander was that between Aubrey and Maturin. I had expected that Maturin would be critical of Aubrey taking the ship into actions that caused wounds Maturin would have to treat. There is a serious conflict between the two in Post Captain although it's not over Aubrey's naval actions. Since the series has 18 more novels one knows that the conflict will be resolved.
The main problem that Aubrey faces in the novel is not the French navy but his own indebtedness and the inability to obtain a suitable command. Paradoxically, Aubrey is safe from creditors while at sea. The problems that a person faced while in debt in 1800 are explained well and the reader has great empathy with Aubrey.
The naval activities in Post Captain seem similar to those in Hornblower and the Hotspur to the point that the climactic action appears to correspond to the same point in history. While O'Brian did not appear to value the Hornblower novels greatly it is obvious that he owes Forester a debt of gratitude for creating the genre. Without Forester it is doubtful that O'Brian would have been able to develop his own unique niche and this excellent novel would not have been published.
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on October 28, 1998
Patrick O'Brian's works have been compared to those of both Jane Austen and Homer. To those who haven't read the series, this might seem like a strange juxtoposition. But anyone who has read Post Captain understands this. O'Brian's novels are a marvel, mixing the story of life at sea with the goings on in 1800 Britain. Throughout the series, we see most of the world and experience the life of many characters. And all the while O'Brian develops two of the most vivid and well done characters in fiction: Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
Although the series itself starts out in Master and Commander, it really takes off in Post Captain. I've talked to several readers who's reaction to the first book was that it was good but they weren't ready to rush out that night and buy the next half dozen. After Post Captain, they're hooked, and procede to devour the entire series.
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on January 7, 2004
Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain is an intoxicating adventure story that includes some genuine twists, an incredibly authentic feel, and truly multifaceted characters. It is also about 180 degrees from Master and Commander in terms of its story. The novel centers, of course, on Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, friends and naval officers in Napoleonic-era England. Lucky Jack, though, is not quite so lucky in this novel, as the prize money he earned for taking the Cacafuego in the previous novel is stolen by a venal prize-agent, leaving Jack in debt and avoiding his creditors and debtors' prison. He escapes to France, where war soon breaks out again, and Aubrey must escape internment. Finally, he gets back to England to put his affairs in order but has his promotion refused. As a consolation, though, he gets a command: the HMS Polychrest, known (nonaffectionately) as the Carpenter's Mistake, and crewed by a dangerously undisciplined crew. Meanwhile, Maturin tries to woo the Lady Diana Villiers, whose half-sister is infatuated with Jack.
This novel is, surprisingly, light on the long descriptions and definitions of sea travel that O'Brian seems so fond of, and centers more on the people. Only about half of the novel takes place on the high seas, and the other half takes place in various locales on England and Europe, the descriptions of nineteenth-century society are vivid and engrossing. The relationships come through here: Jack and Stephen, of course, are the center. Their relationship takes a number of turns in this installment, including a near duel! Fortunately they sort it out. Jack's dealings with his crew, his society friends, and Maturin's treatment of officers in the Portsmouth hospital are revealing indeed.
My only complaint is that the book can be difficult to follow. The scenery can change and hours can elapse without warning, an event can happen and only be mentioned in a throwaway comment that might be overlooked. With so much happening it can be difficult to know what exactly is going on. That said, the book is an otherwise fascinating and thrilling narrative, certainly worth a look if you enjoyed 'Master'.
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on May 3, 2002
This second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series is, like all of the others, an absolute delight. O'Brian does his usual astonishing job of transporting us to an imagined early-19th century world, interesting in large part because it is in some basic ways quite unlike ours, yet peopled by richly-drawn characters who experience emotions intensely familiar.
For the fanatic O'Brian fan (I am one) this book is especially interesting to re-read, since several of the dimensions of the characters, especially Maturin, are slightly at odds with later versions. For example, in one diary passage, Maturin waxes eloquent (and accurate) about the specific arrangement of sails as a convoy weighs anchor -- something he would never do in the later books, when he has become hopelessly ignorant about all things nautical.
These books are in the rare category of those classics that are a page-turning excitement to read when first encountered, and remain similarly exciting if read again and again, constantly revealing new subtleties of character and incident.
One of the great things about the books is O'Brian's periodic indirect explanation of certain expressions that have passed into the vernacular, and are used in contexts far removed from their nautical roots -- for example, "the devil to pay" or "we were at loggerheads", or...I've forgotten the rest. I guess I'll have to read the books again, and so should you.
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on April 22, 2006
In "Post Captain" the saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin continues in the second volume of Patrick O'Brian's legendary naval series. However, I found "Post Captain" to be the weakest of the series because of its long chapters on land. On the other hand, it is critical to read because of the characters that it introduces: Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers, the two most important women throughout the 21 volume series.

The story begins with Jack Aubrey fleeing to France to avoid his creditors, and his interesting means of escape once war is declared following the Peace. Jack's fortunes amassed in "Master and Commander" have largely been wasted away or denied due to his own mismanagement or his lack of favor with the all powerful Admiralty. True, Jack's inability to govern his desires have helped contribute to his misfortune: cuckolding one's superior officer is never advised as a career enhancing move, and this lack of self restraint is one of Aubrey's greatest character flaws. So, he returns to the high seas to recapture his fortune, while on land he competes with his best friend for the favors of Ms. Dianna Villiers while simultaneously keeping her cousin Sophie Williams appeased.

The interaction between Jack and Stephen on land nearly drives their friendship apart, and Jack must confront a near mutiny onboard his experimental ship, while Stephen continues his work as a naval intelligence officer and ship's surgeon.

The book's long chapters set on land are absolutely necessary to establish the two women characters; however, for someone who loves O'Brian for his sea stories and spy adventure, I found the expos? on the social structure and courting rituals of the 1800's hard to push through. If that's what you want to read, then you'll probably enjoy this book the most of his series. In any case it should be read, if only as an investment to enjoy the later novels more thoroughly.
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on December 17, 2002
Number two in the Aubrey-Maturin series. No sophomore slump here; O'Brian's a master with this historical sea novel. That's not to say that O'Brian's method isn't strange. I'm not sure, but I believe that he is consciously imitating a novelistic style used in the 19th century. Of course there's the letters, which accurately depict the style of that time's correspondence, but the stylistic differences are in the descriptive text, things like strange jumps in time and character. Maybe it's a British mode of expression, for two writers who do similar "jumps" that come to my mind are Gwyneth Jones and Mary Gentle. O'Brian's speed is also slightly off--he rushes through great battle scenes that one expects to be the climatic portions of the book, then leisurely strolls through descriptions of teas and late night discussions by the fire. Coul it be that I'm yearning for more "adventure" and less "character"?
It is the character studies of Aubrey and Maturin that fuel the book. What happens to Jack Aubrey is important, yes, but it is how he reacts to it and how Stephen Maturin reacts to his reaction, etc., that makes these books so appealing. If I seem to yearn for more adventure, perhaps it is simply that while I enjoy what O'Brian is showing me with his characters, that I still long for the thrill of a well-told battle or escape from the enclosing walls of a conspiracy. For as much as a character novel this is, it is the historical verissimilitude and the intrigue of the day that interests a modern reader.
In short, they complement each other, and in this volume I felt a little extra weight over in the character side of the scale.
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I can easily imagine some readers not enjoying this novel. If one's idea of a great book is one battle scene after another, then this will not be their cup of tea. O'Brian spends much of the novel dealing with affairs of the heart, and his characters discuss a vast number of subjects that have nothing whatsoever to do with warfare. But like in the first novel, the attentive reader will learn a great deal of social history by reading the book. It is hard to imagine a historical recreation much more attentive to historical detail and accuracy than this one. The nautical detail can sometimes be overwhelming, and some of the sailing maneuvers can leave land lubbers like myself a bit confused about what is happening, but all in all his amazing descriptions provide a "you are there" specificity lacking in many similar books.
Although this is only my second book in the series, I have quickly come to appreciate the character of Stephen Maturin. The first novel hinted at hidden depths, and this one revealed some of his situation. We learn that he is a man of some property if not comparable wealth. We find that he is far more involved in espionage than we might have suspected in the first novel. And we find him to be a man not content to be a mere sidekick to Aubrey, but a companion only if it suits his own needs and other duties do not call.
This novel definitely has a great deal more in the way of plot than the first book. But by and large, it remains true of POST CAPTAIN as it did of MASTER AND COMMANDER that one does not read it for plot so much as one does to get to know and enjoy the very fine central characters, and to learn some history.
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