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.