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Literature / Aubrey-Maturin

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Yes, in the first published edition, Jack Aubrey was played by a young Clint Eastwood.

"It is all one," said Stephen. "They speak in tropes at sea."
HMS Surprise (Book 3)

The Aubrey-Maturin series consists of 20 books written by pseudo-Irish author Patrick O'Brian (born Richard Patrick Russ). The series takes place during The Napoleonic Wars, following the adventures of an English naval captain, Jack Aubrey, and his surgeon and particular friend, Stephen Maturin, who also works for Naval Intelligence. O'Brian also wrote the first couple of chapters of a 21st book before his 2000 death, which have since been published, along with his notes about what happened afterward.

The books start with Jack first meeting Stephen and getting his first command, and go on with no particular overriding plot, though there are several arcs carried through multiple books. Their beginning, middle and end points are also arbitrary; they read something like one very big novel.

The series was adapted into the film Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, which was released in 2003, directed by Peter Weir, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. It was critically acclaimed, reasonably successful at the box office and nominated for various awards including the Best Picture and Best Director awards in the 2003 Oscar Awards, only to get beaten in most categories by the final Lord Of The Rings film.

Titles in the Series (Year of First Edition)

  1. Master and Commander (1969)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. HMS Surprise (1973)
  4. The Mauritius Command (1977)
  5. Desolation Island (1978)
  6. The Fortune of War (1979)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate (1980)
  8. The Ionian Mission (1981)
  9. Treason's Harbour (1983)
  10. The Far Side of the World (1984)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
  12. The Letter of Marque (1988)
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute (1989)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)
  15. Clarissa Oakes (1992) (The Truelove in the USA)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
  17. The Commodore (1994)
  18. The Yellow Admiral (1996)
  19. The Hundred Days (1998)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (2004, unfinished and published posthumously)

The series was adapted into a 2003 film starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which was intended to become the first installment in a series of films (one critic, The Atlantic's Christopher Orr, has argued rather persuasively that it should be turned instead into a Game of Thrones-like HBO-style cable TV series). Several books, among them Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World, were used as inspiration for the film.

Novice readers are sometimes advised to start with the third book, H.M.S. Surprise, to acclimate themselves to the relatively laborious, jargon-laden prose style with a more action-y plot before they attempt to read the two earlier volumes. Even experienced readers are advised to acquire a copy of Dean King's Sea of Words, the 500+ page handbook and lexicon companion to the series.note  King's Harbors and High Seas can also be useful to the reader, as it includes all the necessary maps to keep track of where events happened during the series, as well as the state of the world at the time. It is important to note that it is entirely possible to read the series without these aids; they are useful, but as one of the two main characters' jobs in the series is to have the essential naval matters explained to him, even if the reader does not know exactly what a "waister" is, the action of the book will still make sense.

Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1793-1815 by Brian Lavery is also an excellent companion to the series, but rather pricey. And for the culinary-minded, there's Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas.

A newer online companion, currently in progress, is the Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project, which uses Google Maps to trace, with surprising accuracy, the various comings and goings of both Aubrey and Maturin; it is about halfway done at last count, and progressing quite nicely.

Compare with Horatio Hornblower, the final novel of which was published in 1967, two years before Master and Commander was published. Also see David Drake's RCN novel series, which is more or less Aubrey-Maturin IN SPACE!

For film examples, go to Master and Commander.

Now has its own character page.

The Aubrey-Maturin series contains examples of:

  • A Father to His Men: Jack Aubrey, who looks after his personal followers (the midshipmen and lieutenants who serve under him) as well as he can throughout their careers. The midshipmen in particular, as they usually come to him as 11-14 year old children, and he takes a personal hand in their educations and moral well-being. He also has his foremast True Companions in his bargemen, common seamen who follow him from ship to ship and are the ones protecting his back when he leads a boarding action.
    • Part of the reason Jack always feels terrible after a battle is that he has to write letters home explaining which of his friends died and how.
    • Jack’s success as a captain is in large part, due to his ability to attract snd retain good men. A captain of the time was responsible for recruiting and manning his ship.
  • A Man Is Always Eager: Jack Aubrey is often "pierced with his own sword", as a delirious Stephen once puts it, because he never will learn how to say no.
    • Babbington is this trope on steroids. When the ship is in port, expect him to find a woman. At one point Jack dresses him down in public for contriving to get himself a ship full of Lesbiansnote 
  • Addiction Displacement: Dr. Maturin, over the course of many novels, develops a powerful addiction to the (opium-based) tincture of laudanum. After successfully kicking the habit, he finds a perfectly healthy substitute, one he knows to be non-addictive... the coca leaves chewed by the natives of Peru. And when Maturin's supply of that drug is accidentally consumed by the ship's rats (Hilarity Ensues), Maturin takes to smoking cigars much more frequently.
  • The Alleged Ship:
    • "The horrible old Leopard." Jack tries gamely to defend the fifty-gun ship as "the finest fourth-rate in the service," though at the time it was a class of two, with the other, Grampus, being even more self-evidently horrible a ship.
    • The "scientifically designed" Polychrest, aka "The Carpenter's Mistake." Built to carry an abandoned Secret Weapon, then used as a conventional ship-sloop, with sharp ends at both bow and stern. Not only did Polychrest miss stays on her maiden attempt to leave port, she also sailed backwards in the process.
    • HMS Worcester, one of the "Forty Thieves", a class of 74-gun third rates that came from notoriously corrupt and dishonest shipyards. Her sailing qualities are unremarkable, but what distinguishes her is that she nearly falls apart in a heavy sea and has to abandon pursuit of a fleet-action, returning to Malta yard wrapped up like a chrysalis in a cocoon of twelve-inch line to prevent her from disintegrating. (Consequently she is condemned and taken out of service; Aubrey is returned to command in his trademark frigate, the Surprise.)
    • The ancient tub of a merchantman that carries Sam Panda from Jamaica to Brazil, where he is to begin his ministry, in The Thirteen-Gun Salute. Her barely-trained crew and her terrible sailing qualities lead to her barely weathering the Kingston headland and avoiding capsize only by what is generally agreed to be Divine Intervention, and while Jack prays for a guardian angel to look over Sam, he does wish that it wouldn't require watch after watch of them just to get him to Brazil.
  • All There in the Manual: Can't make heads or tails of the nautical jargon and historical references? There's a 500+ page lexicon and handbook to go along with the series.
  • Amazon Brigade: The crew of the pahi that rescues Jack and Stephen in The Far Side of the World.
  • Animals Hate Him:
    • Nathaniel Martin is almost as dedicated a naturalist as Stephen Maturin, but unlike Stephen, is almost invariably bitten or otherwise abused by the animals he studies. He has one eye... not Eyepatch of Power due to battle or dueling, but due to an unfortunate encounter with an owl. (On the other hand, Maturin is the one who contrives to get poisoned by a platypus in Australia.)
    • To a lesser extent, Jack Aubrey himself. Little luck with horses, even less with the menagerie of animals that Stephen brings aboard throughout his journeys. Special mention goes to the three-toed sloth that burst into tears when it saw him and had to be won over with alcohol (leading to one of the best lines in all of literature)note , and the wombat that chewed up his best hat, gold lace and all.
  • Anyone Can Die: Beginning with The Hundred Days and the series' nearing the end of the wars, some very major characters are killed off in essentially random and undramatic fashion.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: In the first novel, Stephen lists on the potential disasters Jack's daring actions might cause as "A slaughtered crew, a sunken ship, and my collections destroyed..."
  • Audience Surrogate: Neatly averted using the Fish out of Water nature of the characters of both Aubrey and Maturin—on land and at sea respectively. When the narrative needs something about Napoleonic-era shipboard life explained to the audience, it has the ignorant Stephen ask it of Jack, and when the narrative needs something about Napoleonic-era science or politics explained to the audience it has the ignorant Jack ask it of Stephen.
  • Auto Erotica: Stephen arranges a rendezvous for Jack and Sophie in a carriage on a moor at midnight.
  • Autopsy Snack Time: Stephen and a fellow naturalist move immediately from dissection to dinner, using the same knife.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: in The Letter of Marque Stephen finally resolves to make a clean break of his up-until-then ambiguous relationship with Diana, but after talking with her—and discovering Wray's interception of his letters—he definitively changes his mind. After that there's really no doubt.
  • Badass Bookworm: Stephen Maturin is a 5'6", gaunt, clumsy, "small, indefinably odd and even ill-looking" man as well as a doctor, polyglot, natural philosopher and all-round intellectual. He is also Britain's greatest spy. Over the course of the books he is seen shooting the pips out of playing cards, winning several duels, operating on himself, and dispatching his enemies in very badass ways. And then dissecting them.
    • While Captain Aubrey was undoubtedly a badass, he was also a bookworm in his own right being an excellent mathematician and skilled astronomer who wrote several well respected academic papers on the subjects.
  • Bad Boss: Captain Harte, all-around jerkass. Hates Aubrey with a passion, and is responsible for preventing his promotion to Post Captain after the capture of the Cacafuego based on a legal technicality. Aubrey's crew came up with a very unflattering sea shanty penned in Harte's (dis)honor. It's strongly implied that only one verse is clean enough for print, and even that one is pretty bad.
    "Old Harte, Old Harte, that red-faced son of a blue French fart..."
    • To be fair, Harte's wife Molly DID cheat on him with Jack Aubrey, with Harte eventually finding out through rumor.
  • Based on a True Story: The first book, Master and Commander, is closely based on the adventures of Thomas Cochrane and the sloop Speedy, down to the capturing of a Spanish ship twice her size with a mixture of cunning and bravery. The other books mix and match bits from many different captains and battles in the period, but Aubrey is clearly based on Cochrane (who encountered similar troubles with All Devouring Black Hole Loan Sharks, and also inspired at least one other fictional Royal Navy captain, Horatio Hornblower).
  • Battle in the Rain: Leopard vs. Waakzeimheid was carried out in a huge South Atlantic storm; the first ship to momentarily lose control due to battle damage would broach and be swamped.
  • Benevolent Boss: Jack believes in running a tightly-disciplined, taut, but happy ship. His sailors love him and would follow him to hell and back for it (helped in no small part by his skill at capturing lucrative prizes with the crew receiving a share of the profits, which earns him the nickname "Lucky Jack").
  • Berserk Button: it's always dangerous to disparage the Irish and the Catholics around Stephen, who is both. He doesn't mind when Jack occasionally puts his foot in his mouth with anti-Catholic sentiment, though, since he knows Jack never does it intentionally, and he always apologizes for it.
  • Blood Knight: James Dillon in the first book lives for combat, and at least once expresses to Maturin that he understands but does not share in Aubrey's lust for prizes. When he dies in battle against the Cacafuego his mates all say that they had never seen him so alive.
  • Brains and Brawn: Jack and Stephen come across as this at first, but it is quickly established that Stephen is at least as lethal in a fight as Jack, and that Jack is extremely gifted when it comes to scientific disciplines with immediate application, such as astronomy, oceanography and geometry. They're more "Badass Bookworm and Genius Bruiser" than Brains and Brawn per se.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Sir Joseph Blaine's residence is described as well appointed, with a nice fireplace, comfortable chairs, good-looking wood paneling and cabinetwork, as well as tasteful pornographic paintings on the walls. It's casually enough mentioned that it tempts the reader to double-take.
  • Broken Bird: Clarissa Oakes.
  • Camp Follower: Where sailors are, whores will be. Part of any ship's preparations for sea involves kicking all the sailors' stowaway ladies off the ship (and it's always at least a shore-boat full of them).
  • Canine Companion: Pollux, Babbington's pet Newfoundland; he's also a Heroic Dog at least once, when he saves Maturin from drowning (in Desolation Island).
  • The Captain: Jack is the example par excellence, but the series explores in close detail how the authority of a captain can bring negative character traits to the fore; as a result, there are plenty of successful captains, and plenty of unsuccessful ones.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Aubrey's amused "What a fellow you are, Stephen," when Maturin persistently misunderstands naval life.
    • Stephen has his various Irish/Catholic sayings: "the Dear knows", "God between us and evil", and the like.
    • Adopted by both Stephen and Jack, as a reflection of the Navy's insistence on strict timekeeping: "there is not a moment to be lost!" The Royal Navy is absolutely obsessed with punctuality; "to miss one's tide" is considered to be a grave misdemeanor, and on at least one occasion where Jack is unavoidably delayed getting out of port (he was waiting for the notoriously unpunctual Stephen), he and his officers have a few bad moments worrying that they'll be ordered back ashore to explain to the Port Admiral in an "interview without tea and biscuits" just why they didn't carry out their orders to get underway at the specified hour.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Jack has to write letters home to the parents of the officers and the midshipmen killed under his command. Additionally, the authority of the position means that it's nearly impossible for a captain and his officers to really become friends, a kind of social burden that falls on Jack quite often.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • In The Truelove, Jack, searching for a suitable material for Clarissa Harvill's wedding dress, lends her some of a bolt of high-quality scarlet silk that he bought in Batavia for Sophie. This is a case of Aluminium Christmas Trees, by the way, in that for brides to wear white is a Victorian-era innovation; before that period, they'd wear their best and fanciest dress, whatever color it happened to be (and sometimes it was in fact white). This causes problems for Jack's marriage several installments later, in The Commodore, when Clarissa shows up for dinner with Jack and Sophie wearing the dress, only to find that Sophie is wearing a gown made from the same bolt of silk!
    • Too many to count show up in the context of single books. For instance, while outfitting the Sophie, Jack scrounges up a couple buckets of yellow paint at the start of Master and Commander; half the book later, after meeting a very similar-looking Danish brig whose only real difference is that they're painted with a yellow stripe instead of the Nelson chequer, that paint comes in handy for a disguise.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Or in this case, Chekhov's Gunwoman. At the beginning of The Surgeon's Mate, Jack, irritated and upset because he has apparently received no mail from Sophie during his imprisonment in Boston, has a brief fling with a young woman in Halifax, whom he meets at a ball celebrating the Shannon's victory over the Chesapeake. It turns out that the mail, several packets' worth, had been set aside especially for Jack, but nobody had thought to inform the post office clerk. This indiscretion comes back to almost wreck his marriage in The Yellow Admiral, when Sophie is shown old letters that the young lady has written to Jack that he has unwisely kept. She throws him out of the house - or would have thrown him out of the house, except that he's already at sea - but Stephen, with the help of Diana and Clarissa Oakes, manages to save the situation.
    • Another good example: In Desolation Island, Stephen, while visiting Jack, accompanies the latter to his local club, where Jack participates in a regular card game. While watching, Stephen observes that one of the other players seems to be cheating, and informs Jack. Jack later tells Stephen that he called the other fellow on it. The cardsharp in question is Andrew Wray, who pops up over the next half-a-dozen-so books to trouble Jack and Stephen, nearly wrecking the former's career and the latter's marriage.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dr. Maturin, frequently. The whole world could be blowing up around his ears, and he'd be prancing about the ship with a rare snake or a pair of mating insects or somesuch. Of course, that assumes he didn't cause the explosion in question.
  • Clueless Chick-Magnet: Jagiello, the handsome Lithuanian nobleman and a close friend to Jack and Stephen. He speaks passionately of the day that he'd meet a woman who can see him as an equal—considerably harder than it looks considering all the pretty ladies who throw themselves at him. One particularly hilarious incident, during Jack and Stephen's expedition to the Baltic in The Surgeon's Mate, occurs during a port call in Sweden where a local beauty who is apparently quite the favorite with visiting naval officers - her nickname is "The Gentleman's Relish" - tries to stow away in poor Jagiello's cabin, much to his appalled outrage.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Happens to Maturin early in the series, much to Aubrey's horror, and afterwards is a danger very much on his mind whenever he's at risk of being found out as a secret agent.
  • Cold Sniper: We don't learn the exact details of the encounter, but Stephen apparently kills two villains with a rifle at long range... and then almost immediately brings them to a colleague's house, where the two of them calmly dissect the bodies.
  • Colourful Theme Naming: Aubrey and his friend and fellow post-captain Heneage Dundas discuss the captain of HMS Iris, who not only wants to dress his bargemen in the colors of the rainbow (due to the connotation of his ship's name), but specifically seeks out sailors named for said colors: e.g., with surnames like "Scarlett," "White," or "Green." He offered Dundas a brass "chaser" cannon in exchange for one of his sailors whose name was Blew. (Dundas declined, sharing with Aubrey a dislike for "costumed" bargemen. Also, bargemen are a select group, following the captain especially from ship to ship, and are the first behind him in combat. Trading one for a cannon...)
  • Combat Medic: Dr. Maturin.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Played straight, played with and occasionally averted. Aubrey, while enjoying a fair fight with a ship of equal or similar force, is not adverse to trickery, deception and plain running away from a superior opponent. On one notable occasion he is sent to intercept a French ship which is due to sail from a port on a certain date. Rather that wait for her to come out and engage in honourable combat at sea he sneaks his men into the port the night before she is due to sail, assuming that most of the French will be ashore getting drunk, and takes the ship out himself.
  • Come to Gawk: The pillory is shown in The Reverse of the Medal. And then hundreds of sailors Jack has known over the years come and guard Jack while he's there, even dismissing the hired help Stephen has brought.
  • Comic-Book Time: O'Brian moved the series into this after the first half-dozen books when he realized he was running out of Napoleonic War years. O'Brian somehow manages to squeeze what would properly be at least five, perhaps even ten years' worth of action into a period of less than 6 months, roughly spanning June 1813 (the end of The Fortune of War) to November 1813 (the beginning of The Commodore). Time resumes its normal sequence with The Yellow Admiral; the last completed book in the series, ''Blue at the Mizzen", presumably ends in early 1816. O'Brian even admitted this, saying it only made sense if you pretended there were "hypothetical years [...]. An 1812a, as it were, or even an 1812b."
  • Companion Cube: Jack's violin. He's had it since he was a boy and is very distraught when it breaks.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Jack thinks Hamlet is an utterly hilarious play.
  • Cool Boat: The Sophie in book one. The Surprise in most of the series. The Polychrest was probably intended to be this by her architect, but ends up useless and bizarre. Jack, being made of awesome, nevertheless manages to get some good use out of her.
    • Also slightly subverted in book one, as the Sophie is very much the Age of Sail equivalent of a rustbucket. She's called a ship-sloop, a three-masted unrated ship, but is actually a brig, which is two-masted. (Yay for Royal Navy social promotion — a brig is only a lieutenant's command, so any ship given to a commander automatically becomes a sloop, regardless of what it actually is.) Worse, she's dead slow, under-sailed, under-manned and under-gunned. Through clever naval and (ahem) social engineering, Aubrey manages to turn her into a top-notch commerce raider anyway. Jack's biggest concern with the Sophie is the undersized 4-pounders that make up her broadside. Unfortunately those are all the ship can bear. He once tried to mount a nine-pounder bow-chaser cannon, but the ship's carpenter stopped Jack from a second test shot because the stress it put on the knees threatened to rip the ship apart.
      • Even the Surprise is outdated and undergunned compared to Frigates of the time (being 28-gun at a time when new Frigates had 36 or 38 guns, and 44-gun Frigates were starting to appear), but does have the advantage of being fast, especially into the wind. Even when built, the French classed her as a Corvette (a type of fast, light Frigate), though she actually carried more guns than was the norm for a corvette, her class of ship bridging a gap between smaller warships and frigates.
      • And the Surprise would have been even more outclassed if she hadn't been heavily rebuilt quietly off-page somewhere. The real Surprise (credited with the same recapture of the Hermione) originally carried 24 8pdr long guns and eight 4pdr on the quarter deck and forecastle as the Unité in French service. When refitted and commissioned in the Royal Navy, she was reequipped with 24 32pdr carronades on her main deck and a further eight on the forecastle and quarter deck, plus long range chasers, quite heavy for a ship of her size, which complicated her rating (she was rated as a 28 gun sixth rate at first, then as a 32 gun fifth rate from 1797-98, then a sixth rate for the rest of her commission). Her mainmast was replaced with that of a 36 gun frigate, just as unusual as her heavy armament.
        It is mentioned that Surprise had to be reinforced structurally at several points, and that her timbers could not stand a simultaneous broadside of all her guns. By Blue at the Mizzen, Surprise comes in for a near-total rebuild, including newly-designed diagonal bracings—presumably so she could better stand the recoil of her own guns, among other factors.
  • Corrupt Politician: Politicians don't feature too commonly, but corruption was the norm for the day. Aubrey's father, General Aubrey, is an MP from a pocket districtnote  that Aubrey later inherits. Aubrey's father wasn't too scrupulous, managing to get his son convicted of the 19th century version of insider trading by not keeping a secret. Aubrey also has some unscrupulous political enemies.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Babbington is prepared to perform a wedding on two minutes' notice, as Jack taught him to be ready for anything.
  • Crosscast Role: Jack played one-third of Ophelia as a midshipman. Yes. One-third.
  • Cult: Several benign versions turn up among the Shelmerston sailors. Shelmerston is described as having a bewildering variety of obscure Christian (and even a few Judaic) sects. Many of the sailors are Sethians, who especially venerate Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Knipperdollings and Thraskites are also mentioned, among others.
    • The Sethians' practices cause some difficulty at one point when they paint the name of their revered patriarch on the side of the Surprise. In a neat exercise of diplomacy, Jack persuades his Sethian crewmen to cover the painting up, explaining that it's not fitting for impious eyes to see such a holy name.
  • Cultured Warrior : Aubrey and Maturin met during a musical performance, and play violin and cello (respectively) together. They're both enthusiastic amateurs.
    • Maturin is cruelly tortured by French agents at one point early on in the series, losing a significant portion of the more delicate abilities of his hands, so Aubrey deliberately plays worse than he is actually capable of so as not to show up his friend.
    • Dr. Maturin is a natural philosopher first and foremost, a physician second, a spy third, and wraps it all up by being quite good at armed combat.
      • In The Letter of Marque, he takes part in the assault on St. Martin to "cut out" (seize) the French frigate Diane with pistol and cutlass, shooting down the captain of the French warship during the proceedings.
    • In later installments of the series, Aubrey is noted as being a member of the Royal Society (as is Maturin), specializing in astronomy and mathematics, having submitted several well-received papers and presentations to the body on various astronomical topics. He is a friend of the sister of the famous British astronomer William Herschel; the sister tutored him in the art of building telescopes, and Aubrey constructs his own observatory (which we first see in The Mauritius Command and later in The Commodore). Jack is a friend and correspondent of Alexander Humboldt, and in the novel arc from The Thirteen-Gun Salute through The Wine-Dark Sea, is described taking extensive measurements of air and sea conditions in various regions on behalf of the latter, having been provided with a complete set of state-of-the art instruments for the purpose. In the last completed book of the series, Blue at the Mizzen, Jack and Stephen are seen convivially fraternizing with the members of a Royal Society expedition.
    • Again in Blue at the Mizzen, this trope is seen when Jack and Stephen examine the illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence (eventually to become William IV) to determine his fitness to ship aboard the Surprise. The examination is very much a tag team affair, as Jack quizzes the lad on astronomy, mathematics and navigation, while Stephen tests his knowledge of language and other liberal arts. Notwithstanding Jack's initial concerns that an aristocrat might be a spoiled brat ill-prepared for life at sea, young Horatio Hanson turns out to be an outstanding officer who saves Jack's life at one point.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Stephen is illegitimate and an orphan, fostered in the back of beyond, sent from uncaring relative to relative, spends time in several prisons in Spain and Portugal, a Catholic who goes to a Protestant university in his mid-teens, survives the Terror, flees to Ireland, survives the 1798 rebellion, loses Mona, loses Lord Edward Fitzgerald, becomes a fugitive, and ends up penniless. All before the first page of the first book.
  • Darker and Edgier: While Horatio Hornblower is what most people think of when they think of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, this is a close second. At no point in the Hornblower series does anyone say "fucking", for starters, nor are issues like homosexuality, pederasty, bestiality, or porn mentioned much, if at all. Keep in mind Hornblower regularly has people hit by cannon-balls, and it's remarkable that someone could get much darker, but O'Brian managed it.
    • Which is what Lord St. Vincent says to Jack when the latter has the temerity to ask him for a ship in Post Captain. Also a bit of a Precision F-Strike when it does show up (there's one from Thomas Pullings as well).
    • It needs to be taken into account that C.S. Forester was writing in the early part of the 20th century, a much more straitlaced era for mainstream literature; O'Brian, who wrote the series over a period spanning the late 1960s to his death in 2000, had much more freedom to write about the topics mentioned above.
    • C. S. Forester couldn't have the word "fucking" on the page. But it is clear throughout the narrative that all his sailors, including Horatio Hornblower, swear like, well, sailors. There is a temporally-required Narrative Profanity Filter in operation.
    • Jack and Stephen are much more joyful than Horatio and suffer through much less tragedy (though they have their share of troubles, by all means). Jack also believes in the Royal Navy much more than Hornblower.
    • The series takes its own Darker and Edgier turn following the death of O'Brian's wife in Real Life.
  • David Versus Goliath: Aubrey's many awesome achievements are often a result of taking a small, undergunned ship against a superior opponent, and winning. In Sophie of 14 guns and 54 men, he closes beneath the guns of the 32-gun, 319-man Cacafuego, blasts her from point-blank range, and takes her; in Surprise of 28 guns, he slugs it out in heavy seas against Admiral Linois' 74-gun flagship, giving nearly as good as he gets until the convoy of Indiamen manages to swarm in close and force Linois to break off.note  And in Leopard, of 50 guns and extremely dubious repute (whereas both Sophie and Surprise were quick and nimble), he manages to sink a Dutch 74, though that came down to a single lucky shot in a very heavy storm: the first ship to lose control would broach-to and be swamped, and Leopard managed to snap Waakzeimheid's foremast with a shot from her stern chaser.
  • Death by Materialism:
    • French agent Duhamel, after helping Maturin and the British and being given passage to Québec for his troubles, dies in Black Comedy fashion. Having converted his entire fortune to gold (though out of what seems more prudence than materialism) and carrying it concealed around his waist, the poor gentleman then manages to fall in the gap between boat and ship (as Dr. Maturin often does) and sink to his doom, pulled down by the weight of the gold.
    • Tragic example with Dil, the Indian girl whom Stephen befriends in HMS Surprise. He buys her the silver bangles that she had always wanted—and later finds her dead, having been robbed and murdered for them.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Babbington finally meets a girl he is willing to settle down with, Fanny Harte. Unfortunately, Fanny is the daughter of the hated Admiral Harte, who is perfectly willing to spite Babbington as one of Aubrey's apprentices; furthermore, Fanny gets married to Andrew Wray, who hates her and marries only her for her massive inheritance. Fortunately, Harte contrives to get blown up in a shocking defeat that Wray, as The Mole for the French, was responsible for; several books later, Wray gets unmasked, exiled, and shot by Stephen, leaving the way clear for Babbington.
  • Defector from Decadence: French Interservice Rivalry—literally deadly serious—finally gets too much for the Consummate Professional Duhamel, who defects over to the British side and reveals Wray as the mole.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Common. The heroes are generally quite acceptable to modern readers, Stephen being incredibly progressive and Jack being too good-natured to really believe anything hurtful, but xenophobia, sexism, and classism still pervade the setting, just as it did in the real 19th-century world. Politically Correct History is not in effect.
    • Not that Jack didn't have his moments, especially early in the series. He openly disdains the Irish, makes some ugly remarks about Catholics and comments on how Spaniards are innately cruel, sometimes right in half-Catalan, half-Irish Catholic Stephen's face (though he is usually quite quick to apologize, and gets better the more he interacts with Stephen). In the beginning of the series, he is mildly leaning towards being pro-slavery, albeit only because he considers abolition a threat to Britain's ability to fund the war (he has absolutely no qualms about race, and after he gets to see the conditions on a slaving ship first-hand he becomes a committed abolitionist). He makes several disparaging remarks about the American political system and considers "one man, one vote" to be the equivalent of anarchy, while defending the property-based British parliamentary system. He is less happy about flogging his men than many other captains, but completely ruthless in applying A Taste of the Lash when he considers it to be necessary.
    • Jack clearly has no problem with coloured women. His early, temporary demotion for smuggling a woman aboard is implied, from context to have involved a coloured girl, and he has a mixed-race son by one such relationship.
    • Stephen was also remarkably progressive for the time, but he was also a 19th-century Catalan nobleman, and quite ready to protect his honor against any slights, real or imagined, by killing the offending party. He was also quite openly Islamophobic and hated "the Moors" (at the time, Muslim pirates and slavers were common in the Mediterranean and Stephen’s part-Catalan background would also bear on this).
  • Destination Defenestration: alluded to in Aubrey's dealings with Kimber's lawyers. Also a reason why he was impatient to put out to sea until it all blew over—Aubrey might be Lucky Jack on the ocean, but he does have a tendency to get in sticky situations on shore.
  • Dramatic Irony: Deployed too often to enumerate. The narration often plays on switching back and forth between Jack and Stephen, who are aware of different events. The narration also creates irony with the reader's modern perspective. For example, the reader understands germ theory while Stephen does not. Each of Stephen's treatments and discourses on medicine can be examined in two lights: from the early 19th century perspective and from the 21st century perspective.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Diana, though she's an unusually skillful example of the trope. Jagiello tries but fails, since in Lithuania the peasants are expected to get out of the way when the noblemen come hurtling through—which is decidedly not the case in England. The sailors' driving fails to qualify only due to their slowness, since they're used to hauling on the reins with a force more appropriate for the rigging of a small boat, though upsets are common.
  • The Drunken Sailor: Prevalent. The amounts of alcohol routinely consumed by the characters are astonishing by modern standards. Sometimes a character (e.g., frequently, Killick when ashore) will be referred to as drunk "even by naval standards."
    • Until 1850, Royal Navy sailors were issued a daily alcohol ration equivalent to a half-pint of liquor (283 mL). The ration was usually split into two daily servings of grog (rum mixed in the ratio of half a pint to one quart of water, with citrus juice - typically lemon or lime - added originally to improve the taste of the water, later to prevent scurvy). The mixing and serving of the grog is a high point of the daily routine at sea, observed with great attentiveness and solemnity by the crew. The standard ratio of rum to water in grog is 1:4, and cutting the amount of rum in a sailor's grog is a standard punishment for minor offenses. However as Stephen points out, the amount of spirits is more important than the dilution of spirits.
    • In home waters the grog might be substituted with a gallon of beer, or in the Mediterranean a pint of wine. In far foreign ports the Indian Ocean arak would be substituted, which the novels assert was stronger than rum.
    • It should be noted that in the early 19th century of the novels wine glasses were substantially smaller than the present day. In the early 19th century wine glasses were around 70 mL, a far cry from the 400 mL wine glasses more common today. At parties when characters consume several glasses of wine, they are consuming the equivalent of two full modern glasses.
    • In the novels it is not unusual for sailors to drink themselves into a coma. Actual death from alcohol consumption is rarer but by no means unheard-of.
  • Duet Bonding
  • The Dung Ages: Often upheld on land, but strongly subverted in anything having to do with the Royal Navy, especially the ships. Much is made of the Navy's fanatical attention to neatness and cleanliness, to the extent that there are several funny moments where Stephen hears his shipmates remark disapprovingly on the slovenly/filthy state of a certain ship, but himself can't see much of anything wrong. On a more serious note, Stephen remarks several times that the Navy's devotion to cleanliness translates into a significantly lower rate of infection and disease aboard ship than on shore. (Note that on the one occasion where a plague stalks the ship's—in this instance the Leopard's crew, in Desolation Island—the disease was brought aboard by a group of convicts that the Leopard was conveying to Botany Bay.)
    • Jack keeps sailors as servants when ashore, which leads to his home being almost frighteningly clean, especially for a bachelor: it is perfectly natural behavior for the sailors to dismantle, mop, dry, and reassemble the house before breakfast every morning, and it gets a fresh coat of paint about once a week.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • Master and Commander has no hint of Stephen's capacity for violence and only a tiny hint at his skills with intelligence, in fact rather than a key British agent, he's basically laying low after his involvement in the failed 1798 Irish Uprising. There's also a third character, James Dillon, who acts as a Foil to both Jack and Stephen and seems shaping up to be a third protagonist, until he dies. The Early-Installment Weirdness continues until either HMS Surprise (the third book, where Jack and Stephen's characteristics and dynamic had taken on their permanent shape) or Desolation Island (the fifth, where the books became slimmer, more serialized, and more consistent in writing style), depending on which fan you ask.
    • Though appearing in both Master and Commander and Post Captain, Jack's steward Preserved Killick doesn't gain his curmudgeonly Servile Snarker characterization until the third novel, HMS Surprise.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Well, a Snake. Jack Aubrey has a serious fear of snakes, and at one point in Master and Commander jumps up onto a chair when one crawls into the room, not coming down until Stephen removes it. Stephen doesn't help matters any by being a Deadpan Snarker about it, pulling Jack's leg about the (nonpoisonous) snake being a deadly and aggressive viper.
  • Epic Ship-on-Ship Action: Several, as expected in the genre. Perhaps the most epic of them is the Battle in the Rain with Waakzaamheid in Desolation Island.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Wray and Ledward murdering their own agents to safeguard their own fortunes is the main reason behind Duhamel's defection.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mrs. Williams is overbearing, badgering, and apparently loves to make Jack and Sophie's lives hell, culminating in The Yellow Admiral where she discovers the cache of letters from an old fling of Jack's (that he had unwisely kept, see the Chekovs Gunman entry above), and gives them to Sophie with malice aforethought. Her nasty behavior is so outrageous that Stephen finally calls her on it and, in his understated way, scares the living crap out of her, (see the Shut Up, Hannibal! entry). For all that, though, she is a decent manager of money, though she is not above running illegal schemes to make it.
  • Fish out of Water: a straight example when it comes to landsmen on water, and almost literally when it comes to sailors on land. Jack, for instance, manages to endanger most of his fortune when it comes to falling for various Get Rich Quick Schemes, while mention is made of Mowett being unable to differentiate between commercial and "vanity" publishing when he tries to publish his poetry.
  • Fixing the Game: It's strongly implied that the reason Jack loses many pounds at whist in book 2 is because his interlocutors are cheating. That Jack accuses them of this loudly and in public is the driving force behind a Smug Snake picking up the Villain Ball.
  • For Want Of A Nail: In The Fortune of War, Jack, who has just been rescued along with Stephen and a number of his followers from a shipwreck, is offered the opportunity to head to Brazil (and thence home to England) on a prize that the ship that picked him up, the HMS Java, has recently taken. However, a suspicious ship has just been spotted, so Jack decides (both for himself and his followers) to stay aboard the Java in the hope of sharing in the rewards of another prize. There's only one problem; that other ship is USS Constitution, the renowned "Old Ironsides", which proceeds to defeat and take the Java in a furious engagement. (The engagement is Truth in Television, and can be read about at here.) Jack, Stephen and their comrades end up being taken as prisoners of war.
    • In the Constitution-Java action itself, the Java manages the potentially devastating manoeuver of crossing-the-T at Constitution's stern... but earlier in the battle her raw crew neglected to reload their guns on that side of the ship, so they only manage to fire a single gun instead of a full broadside.
  • Foreshadowing: In one of the later books there is a section describing a transit on a post-chaise which includes a quite narrow and tricky bridge coming at the bottom of a hill. A couple of books later Diana, who was said to be somewhat overly aggressive as a driver and dismissed concerns about that specific bridge, is revealed to have been killed in an accident on that very bridge.
  • Foul Medicine: Invoked, where Dr. Maturin will add chemicals to his medicines to make them taste worse, as sailors believe that If It Tastes Bad, It Must Be Good for You.
  • From Bad to Worse: A few examples, but the end of Desolation Island springs to mind.
  • Frozen in Time: Around book 7, O'Brian realized he was running out of Napoleonic War in which the story could take place, so he put the year 1812 on constant loop for the next 10 books. At the author's own suggestion, fans like to characterize certain actions as taking place in 1812a or 1812b.
  • Genius Bruiser: Jack Aubrey. He is a tall, burly, heavily scarred war hero and immensely successful naval commander. He is also, along with his good friend Dr. Maturin, a Fellow of the Royal Society (Britain's most prestigious academic society). He has written a number of well-received papers on astronomy and geometry, and built his own observatory and telescopes.
  • Gentle Giant: Padeen is a very large, strong man whose compassionate nature makes him an excellent nurse. Also, his patience and friendliness eventually coaxes Stephen's autistic daughter, Brigid, out of her shell. Showed again with the Native American Porter in the Fortune of War.
    • Not quite played straight, as Padeen badly beats three men for mocking his bandaged jaw, throwing one into a horse pond and holding another in a fire. Padeen is clearly enormously strong, being able to lift a very large, very heavy door clear off of its hinges to get at opiates. He was also capable of restraining the deranged gunner (who was one of the strongest men in the ship, and had just beaten his wife and her liaison to death) threatening Stephen.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Jack Aubrey spent some time "before the mast" early in his career, being disrated by his captain for smuggling a woman aboard ship and hiding her in the cable tier; he ultimately spent 6 months as a common sailor before earning his way back into the captain's good graces and being rated midshipman again. As Jack often says, while he much regretted and resented his disrating at the time, his sojourn between decks gave him an intimate understanding of, and sympathy with, the ways in which ordinary seamen behave and carry out their duties which has stood him in excellent stead ever since in his career as an officer.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The fate of Captain Corbett in The Mauritius Command. When his ship, the Africaine, is briefly taken by the French, his is among the lives lost, and judging by his crew's stubbornly evasive answers, it's likely that they took care of him themselves in the confusion.note 
    • Certain events on the Juan Fernandez islands in The Far Side of the World are presented through Jack's limited understanding of the situation, but Stephen and the reader don't take long to figure out that Horner the gunner murdered his wife and her lover, Hollom, while the three of them were ashore.
  • Hand of Glory: In The Hundred Days, Dr. Maturin is given a hand by a fellow physician that exhibits palmar aponeurosis to the point that the fingers are bent inwards and the fingernails growing through the flesh of the palm. The superstitious crew believe that it is a Hand of Glory and that it is a Good Luck Charm, making them upset when the dog eats it.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Invoked or played with quite lot, in- and out-universe, or as intentional Double Entendre.
    • In The Ionian Mission Captain Babbington insists the women on his ship are all Lesbians - meaning female inhabitants of Lesbos he rescued from the pirates.
    • In The Surgeon's Mate, in a rare moment, Stephen is described as "positively gay" - opposite to his usual not very cheerful personality.
  • Hook Hand: After Plucky Middie William Reade gets his hand blown off, he has it replaced with a hook.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Both the French captain Christy-Palliere and the British Heneage Dundas really existed. Interestingly, in Master and Commander in particular Jack Aubrey is essentially a Captain Expy of the real-life Captain Cochrane (particularly the Sophie-vs-Cacafuego/Speedy-vs-Gama duel, accurate down to the number of guns and crewmen), who really was captured by Christy-Palliere in the same way that Jack Aubrey was captured — the real-life Christy-Palliere was so impressed by Cochrane's exploits that he refused to accept his sword in surrender, the same as Aubrey.
  • Honey Trap: French agents try to compromise Stephen in Malta with Mrs. Fielding, the wife of a captured British officer, in combination with implied blackmail (Lt. Fielding's death sentence would be continually delayed so long as she cooperated). It doesn't work; Laura Fielding is too nervous, and Stephen too perceptive that something is up. He manages to get Laura to tell him the truth, and then works out a plan to protect her from French intelligence by pretending to be her lover.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Several of the Pacific Island tribes they meet do eat humans, though it's treated as in very matter-of-fact way. One tribal queen whom Aubrey is assigned to help out realizes the disparity in customs very amusedly and waves it off with, "So many taboos!"
  • I Never Got Any Letters: After the Honey Trap situation described above, which quite naturally leads to rumors, Stephen writes a (partial) explanation of the matter to Diana, basically asking her to trust him. Unfortunately, he left the letter to Wray, and so Diana does not receive it. This leads to a misunderstanding between the two that persists from Treason's Harbour to The Letter of Marque, when Stephen finally tries to break with Diana for good—only to finally piece together the truth and reconcile with her.
  • Informed Self-Diagnosis: Stephen is generally quite good at this, with the notable exception of failing to diagnose his own addiction to the alcoholic tincture of laudanum.
  • Innocent Innuendo:
    • By the end of The Surgeon's Mate, when Stephen and Diana are finally reunited onboard the Oedipus, Jack strides out onto the quarterdeck and complains disgustedly that "they're going at it hammer and tongs, like they've been married this past twelvemonth and more." He was actually referring to their arguing.
    • Stephen is outraged by Pullings's predatory onshore zeal in pressing landsmen into naval service: "His lust for men is inhuman!"
  • In-Series Nickname: Aubrey is referred to as "Goldilocks" by the crew (though never to his face, of course), for his blond hair. In the wider world, he's well known as "Lucky Jack Aubrey" for his good fortune in capturing prizes.
  • Instant Leech: Just Fall in Water!: In Blue at the Mizzen, Stephen Maturin and Christine Wood fall into brackish West African mud. Afterwards, each is covered with "astonishingly numerous and avid leeches." They use salt (brought by Christine for this purpose) to remove the leeches.
  • It's Personal: implied for the captain of the Waakzeimheid; after the first few exchanges of fire, he is seen wearing a black coat, and chasing Leopard despite suicidal weather for battle. Jack wonders if his son had died in their skirmishing.
  • Joke Ship: The Polychrest.
  • Just Friends:
    • Stephen and Diana, for much of the series. (They get together in The Surgeon's Mate.)
    • Padeen seems to be stuck in one of these in regards to Clarissa.
    • In the later books, Stephen and Christine Wood.
  • Kangaroo Court: Jack Aubrey suffers through one of these — framed for financial crimes, he is given a sadistically long show trial whose judge is his father's political nemesis.
    • Stephen experiences one in The Surgeon's Mate, although by this point in the series, he's been through far worse—particularly in Mahon—and the attempts at intimidation, the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine, and the Bad "Bad Acting" of the supposed "witnesses" mostly come across as farcical. It gets a bit more serious when Mr. Johnson, still smarting from his defeat in Boston in the previous book, walks in and (accurately) testifies that Maturin killed two French agents there.
  • The Klutz: Stephen somehow contrives to get into accident after accident at sea, ranging from falling out of the boat to somehow turning a complete somersault in a particularly violent sea. As a result, the seamen around him look upon with real affection and considerable respect for his medical prowess—and stand wary in case he manages to take yet another improbable tumble at every possible opportunity.
    • Also an example with "Awkward" Davis, a very large, violent, and impulsive sailor (who always follows Jack, whatever his command) that manages to actually sink a boat by shoving off from the gunwale with his foot.
  • Last-Name Basis: Used accurately, as during that period only the very most intimate friends or lovers would address one another by unadorned first name. Except for Jack, all of Stephen's old comrades/shipmates — and by the end of the series he has amassed a very wide circle of naval friends — address him by his professional title, and even Jack addresses him as "Doctor" during, so to speak, business hours. Diana Villiers, Stephen's great love throughout most of the series, most frequently calls him "Maturin" before their marriage (and even occasionally after), and Stephen reciprocates by calling her "Villiers". In fact, Jack, Jack's wife Sophie, Diana, and later on in the series, Sir Joseph Blaine and Christine Wood are the only people who are entitled, by the intimacy of their relationship, to address Stephen by his first name. (It should be emphasized that Last-Name Basis does not imply coldness or distance in the relationship; for instance, Tom Pullings, who has been a close friend of Stephen's ever since their first commission together in the Sophie, invariably addresses him as "Doctor". Stephen, however, does customarily address Pullings as "Tom" in informal conversation. Stephen and Diana, during their long courtship, are another obvious example.)
    • Jack's very old shipmates, especially those who follow him from commission to commission — his "followers" — invariably address him as "Captain" out of their deep respect for him, no matter how close their relationship is. Jack will customarily address old friends/subordinates such as Pullings, James Mowett, William Babbington (and later on in the series, William Reade) by their first name in informal conversation; when naval business is being done, he will call them "Mr. (insert surname here)" or address them by rank.
    • Last-Name Basis saves Stephen's fortune on at least one occasion: Before leaving on his circumnavigation recounted in the arc beginning with The Thirteen Gun Salute, Stephen writes a power-of-attorney letter authorizing Sir Joseph Blaine to move his money from his current bank, which is providing highly unsatisfactory service, to a different one recommended by Jack. However, Stephen is writing a note to Diana at the same time, and in true Cloudcuckoolander fashion, signs that note with the formal "S. Maturin" signature that he uses for business letters and signs the power-of-attorney as "Stephen". This turns out to be very fortunate, however, as the bank Stephen had intended to shift his fortune to unexpectedly goes bust during the voyage, and because Sir Joseph can't move the funds with the incorrectly signed power-of-attorney, the money is safe in the "highly unsatisfactory" bank. Another happy result is that, from that point on, Stephen and Sir Joseph, already close friends, enjoy the liberty to address each other by unadorned first names.
      • (In fact, anyone who has read collections of 19th century letters knows that people normally used a formal signature even when writing to their nearest and dearest.)
  • The Laws and Customs of War
    • There are numerous scenes, usually in passing, where Jack will read the Articles of War to the crew in lieu of a sermon on Sunday.
      • The emphasis with which Jack reads these regulations, with their hair-curling repetition of "shall be punished by death", varies according to his mood and the situation on board ship. When all is well, he'll skim through the Articles so as to let the men get on with the important business of having their Sunday dinner; but when he's angry about something (as at the beginning of The Truelove), he'll read the Articles in a most impressively menacing fashion.
    • Also discussed repeatedly in contexts such as when, early on in the series, Stephen quizzes one of the officers about the custom of showing "false flags" to trick a potential enemy. The officer explains that this practice is quite legal as tactical deception in pre-battle maneuvering, but that the ship's genuine national colors are always raised before battle is joined. This is quite important because if it's not done, the ship can legally be treated as a pirate vessel!
    • It causes a few problems sometimes: one character, Dutourd, in The Wine-Dark Sea takes it as an absolute affront that his possessions and money are claimed after it's been legally established that no, he had no letter of marque or anything similar - the closest thing he could produce was a well-wishing letter from the French Minister of Marine - and was thus being treated as a pirate, saying that he was robbed. He goes on to cause trouble for Stephen later.
      • To be more precise, Dutourd's personal possessions and money were left alone (no doubt, of course, they would have been seized by the crews of privateers less well-disciplined than the Surprise's man-of-war's men); it was the expedition's treasury that was confiscated and then shared out among the crew. Also, his situation was more anomalous than the previous paragraph might imply. He himself didn't have the requisite letter of marque, but his American sailing-master, who was killed in the action in which the Surprise captured the Franklin, did, so Jack decided to stretch a point. As things turned out, that might not have been the wisest thing to do.
    • The status of the Surprise herself, during the great circumnavigation that takes up much of the second half of the series, is worth looking at in some more detail. As of The Reverse of the Medal, the ship (which, for all its manifold virtues, is nonetheless obsolete by the technical standards of the day) has been taken out of service and put up for auction. When Jack is framed for stock market fraud, stripped of his rank and stricken from the list, Stephen (with the help of Tom Pullings) buys the Surprise, obtains "letters of marque" - documents issued by the British Government which authorize Stephen, as owner of the ship, to carry out military operations against Britain's enemies - has the ship moved to Shelmerston (where top-notch sailors and naval stores are readily to be found), and hires Jack as the Surprise's captain, making it clear all along that he is essentially holding the ship in trust until Jack - whom everyone acknowledges to be the rightful owner of the ship - can acquire enough wherewithal to purchase it again from Stephen. At this point, and going on until early into The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the Surprise is operating as a classic privateer, though Jack, being sensitive about the term (which has fallen into more than a little disrepute by the time of the Napoleonic Wars), prefers to refer to her as a private man-of-war. When Jack is cleared and reinstated in The Thirteen-Gun Salute and given command of the Diane, the Surprise takes on a new status, as HMHV (His Majesty's Hired Vessel) Surprise, and sails eastward, under the command of Tom Pullings, to rendezvous with the Diane once Jack has completed his mission. As it happens, the Diane is shipwrecked in a typhoon at the end of The Thirteen-Gun Salute, and Jack manages to obtain another ship in Batavia, which he names The Nutmeg of Consolation, or Nutmeg for short, and it is in this ship that he finally rendezvouses with Surprise. He transfers to Surprise and takes command again, with Pullings as his first officer, and from then on, the Surprise, though continuing to be a private vessel (Jack, who by this time is flush with cash from all the prizes he's captured, has bought her back again from Stephen at cost), operates, for all intents and purposes, as a Royal Navy vessel, under Admiralty orders, until her return to Great Britain.
    • The citizenship of sailors is also addressed in Desolation Island. In particular, US citizens Michael Herapath and Louisa Wogan are "encouraged" by Maturin to escape to an American whaler, because once they set foot on a US vessel, they could not be pursued for any crime. The crew of the American whaler, while Maturin is treating them for scurvy in exchange for the use of their forge, is revealed to be at least 1/3 British citizens and Royal Navy deserters. Aubrey would have been well within his rights and the law to press the British crewmen, or hang them for desertion, with no legal recourse for either the whaler's captain or the US. However, Maturin "neglects" to tell Aubrey.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Sophie may have been brought up to follow this trope, despite Jack's best efforts to encourage her to enjoy their marital relations. While Jack loves Sophie deeply, he's less than totally satisfied with Sophie's passive attitude toward sex (which is undoubtedly a factor in his extramarital adventures). During The Yellow Admiral, when their marriage is experiencing serious difficulties, Diana and Clarissa Oakes do their best to coax Sophie out of her indifference about sexual relations, with some success. It does not help that Jack's idea of foreplay is getting drunk at dinner and he approaches sex with the same briskly aggressive attitude he otherwise reserves for boarding actions in combat.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Stephen and Sophie have this dynamic.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Often averted since promotion is a plot point in nearly every book, and provides the title for five of the novels, but by the end of the series O'Brian had to go to increasingly absurd lengths to keep that much seniority in a small frigate like the HMS Surprise.
  • Living Legend: Captain Jack Aubrey, globe-trotting badass much caressed by the Admiralty, astronomer and geometer, member of the Royal Society. Stephen Maturin, world renowned naturalist, physician, and the James Bond of the Napoleonic Wars also much caressed by the Admiralty. Beloved by all of Britain, feared by her enemies, these two are highly improbable.
  • Loan Shark: Driving most of the plot of book two.
  • Local Reference: Patrick O'Brian's Irish ancestry and his move to a Catalan town in his youth both show up in the character of Stephen Maturin.
  • The Longitude Problem: Shows up occasionally (as to be expected in a book with its setting), usually when one of the ship's clocks has some kind of breakdown and makes navigation very difficult. Watches and clocks are rightly shown as being extremely important for any maritime venture, though not only for navigation.
    • It was to the point that no ship carried only one chronometer onboard; mention is made of Jack consulting three to get the average.
  • Long-Running Book Series
  • Lost at Sea: A not-uncommon trope throughout the series.
  • Love Triangle: In The Far Side of the World, between Horner the gunner, Mrs. Horner, and Hollom the thirtyish midshipman. It ends badly. Like, really really badly.
  • Loving a Shadow: Stephen himself is afraid that his own feelings toward Diana were false after he runs into her again in Boston, and discovers that he no longer loves her, leading to endless self-questioning if his earlier passion was based on reality. Even their marriage was acknowledged by both as an act of convenience, in order to regain Diana's lost British citizenship so that she couldn't be deported to America. Despite their close friendship, it isn't until The Letter of Marque when it is finally established, without a doubt, that Diana and Stephen truly love each other.
  • Married at Sea: Stephen and Diana at the end of The Surgeon's Mate, possibly also Jack and Sophie at the end of The Mauritius Command (though in-text it's implied that Sophie prefers a proper church wedding ashore). Stephen had wanted to marry Diana aboard the H.M.S. Shannon in The Fortune of War, and the captain was preparing to do it (he even had the proper passages marked in the Book of Common Prayer) when he was interrupted by the ship-to-ship duel with the U.S.S. Chesapeake.
    • The Catholic Church didn't recognize the (civil, Anglican) ceremony as canonical, though, so Stephen and Diana were, by Catholic standards, "living in sin" until they got "properly" married in a Noodle Incident between The Letter of Marque and The Thirteen Gun Salute.
  • M.D. Envy: Few naval surgeons are actual physicians, and even fewer are as learned and skilled as Dr. Maturin.
  • Memory Trigger: In the second book, Stephen makes the mistake of purchasing a distinctive bottle of perfume for Diana, which makes it her Signature Scent since it never fails to remind him of her. Even when it shows up on his best friend.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Subverted. Sophie's mother assumes this is the case and is horrified when she learns Jack's domestic staff consists entirely of sailors. However, the joke's on her; Jack's entourage of Royal Navy sailors can keep house far better than most domestics. Of course, they keep up the house as if it were a Royal Navy man-o'-war, which means dusting, sweeping and mopping the entire house before breakfast every day, routine daily inspections and maintenance, two weekly baths for everyone, and a fresh coat of paint once a week. Also, Sophie's mother is favorably impressed by Killick's cooking, although by that point Killick has been cooking his captain's meals three times a day for nearly a decade.
  • Mid-Battle Tea Break: Engagements with enemy ships often include a long chase lasting hours or days, sometimes preceded by an exchange of cannon fire. Except in rough seas, during the chase most of the crew is not needed moment to moment so the daily life of the ship goes on almost uninterrupted including coffee breaks.
  • Minored In Ass Kicking: Has Stephen Maturin ever lost a duel? Justified in that dueling skill is described as nearly mandatory for survival at Maturin's Irish university, where Duels Decide Everything. On one unfortunate occasion, he did kill a man that he had intended to only wound lightly, due to the fact that his hands, badly damaged from torture, couldn't aim the pistol with the degree of accuracy required. There was also the slight problem that Maturin's opponent had already planted a pistol ball in his chest, a 'misfire' that would have gotten him killed by officiant in any case.
  • Mixed Metaphor: Jack uses these all the time. Stephen likes to poke fun.
    Aubrey: They have chosen their cake, and must lie in it.
    Maturin: You mean, they cannot have their bed and eat it.
    Aubrey: No, no, it is not quite that, neither. I mean... I wish you would not confuse my mind, Stephen.
    • An extensive list of these and other such "Aubreyisms" can be found here.
  • Motor Mouth: Stephen has been known to go on and on about exotic birds. He knows this and uses it deliberately; while he's babbling on about the feathers of an albatross no one would expect him to be a spy.
    Maturin: When I return, my dear, I shall publish such papers on cryptogams that no one shall ever again lay the charge of intelligence upon my head.
  • The Movie: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based mostly on the tenth book, but it includes elements and lines from much of the series.
  • Mugging the Monster: an unlucky footpad jumps a pensive Jack Aubrey in Post Captain, only to get the stuffing beaten out of him. In hindsight, it turned out to be the right move: Aubrey, afraid that he'd killed the man, took him home for Stephen to treat. The poor guy turns out to be completely incompetent at robbery, but makes an adequate assistant for Stephen (though still terrified of Aubrey).
  • Must Have Caffeine:
    • Mention is made of hands resorting to soaking burnt bread or roasting and brewing barley when they're out of coffee as a poor replacement. Killick also improves in his coffee-brewing throughout the series.
    • This is especially applicable to Jack and Stephen; there are several funny scenes where the duo tries to secure coffee from other ships where it turns out that the captain either doesn't like coffee or objects to it on medical or religious grounds. It is also mentioned that neither the captain nor the doctor are fully human until after their morning coffee.
    • In Desolation Island, Jack berates Killick for reheating cold coffee, which he considers "a crime not far short of hanging."
  • National Stereotypes: Professor Graham appears to play straight the "dour, humorless Scotsman" stereotype, until the subversion appears: Graham turns out to be a fellow intelligence agent, and his close cooperation with Stephen turns out to be vital for the Mediterranean story arc covered by The Ionian Mission and Treason's Harbour.
  • Naval Blockade: The British blockade of France during The Napoleonic Wars and North America during the War of 1812 are shown, unusually, from the perspective of the blockaders. As the weather is terrible, the ships spend a long time at sea without any interesting port calls, there's little chance for loot and glory, and the hygiene and comfort of a sailing ship are what we would expect from Wooden Ships and Iron Men, the duty is understandably highly unpopular among both officers and crew.
  • Noodle Incident: Several passing references are made in various books to cruises and missions undertaken by Jack and Stephen (mainly in the Surprise). Much of what happens on shore between books, or while the main characters are at sea, falls into the same category.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: When one the crew dies during an arduous voyage in an open boat after their ship burns in The Fortune of War, the crew keep the body just in case and when they're rescued shortly afterward, Jack chooses to ignore that part of the corpse's thigh has already been carved off in the night.
  • Nostalgia Filter: A number of older captains and admirals (and, increasingly, Jack and Stephen) remember the past quite fondly. A number of references are made to the 1780s and 90s. One spends a significant amount of time at dinner instructing a midshipman on proper behavior, specially pointing out with approval Jack's rather old-fashioned behavior and appearance.note 
  • Number Two: Tom Pullings, the first of Jack's midshipmen to pass for lieutenant, is often found as Jack's first lieutenant aboard his many commands—indeed, when Jack is temporarily struck off the Navy list, Pullings offers to temporarily volunteer himself as part of his command of a letter of marque. After Jack's reinstatement and assignment to the commodore of a squadron, he makes it a point to ask for now-Captain Pullings to be the captain of his flagship, HMS Bellona.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Well, nobody could accuse Maturin of being stupid, but his obsession with science and medicine often serves as a sort of Obfuscating Eccentricity, diverting suspicion from his other activities. During his lecture at the Institut de France, on the subject of the Rodrigues solitaire, one of his listeners whispers to his neighbor that "If this man has anything to do with intelligence work, then I am the Pope."
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: The books are Napoleonic-era historical novels, but chapters here and there turn into a espionage drama. The Reverse of the Medal takes place almost entirely on land, centering as it does around political intrigues to oust Jack from the Navy and the desperate struggle to pinpoint The Mole.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Jack defends his old ship, the aged, decrepit fifty-gun H.M.S. Leopard, calling her "the finest fourth-rate in the fleet". The Royal Navy, at the time, had two fourth-rates in service, and the other one (H.M.S. Grampus, if anyone's curious) was even more overtly horrible.
  • Pet the Dog: Harte, Aubrey's hated admiral, shows a moment or two of decency in Treason's Harbor, mentioning that it is his habit to try to buy the liberty of Algerine slaves whenever possible. This comes mere pages before he and Aubrey sail into an ambush; Harte's ship is blown up with no survivors, and Aubrey escapes by the skin of his teeth.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Jack's seamanship and amazing fortunes at sea earn him huge amounts of money from captured prizes. His equally amazing misfortunes on land often mean that at the start of every new book, his fortune is either lost or is in danger of being lost, with him hunting for a source of revenue that would clear his debts.
  • Pintsized Powerhouse: Midshipman (later lieutenant, later captain) Babbington. It's implied that his love of the ladies gave him the pox so often it stunted his growth. In fact, he never grew into the clothes his mother sent him to sea with in the first book and he's always been small. He also kicks a great deal of ass, following the illustrious footsteps of Lucky Jack.
  • Pirate:
    • Encountered occasionally, always as Type 1. Mostly in the less developed parts of the world, and sailing smaller craft, though Aubrey does engage Alastor, a French four-masted pirate ship, in The Wine-Dark Sea.
    • Mention also goes to the Chinese and Malay members of the Lively's crew, who were mostly "recruited" from empty junks and praus. They show up in HMS Surprise, when Jack leads a boarding-party of them to take a gunboat. Instead of charging in with cheers, European-style, the former pirates take out their targets with garrotes and knives in total silence, leaving Jack and the European sailors stunned. Then comes the Port Mahon raid to free Stephen, where the capability for stealth and silent killing becomes paramount, and Jack makes a specific point of asking for them.
  • Plucky Middie: Lots and lots of them. Pullings, Babbington, and Mowett form the first generation of Jack's midshipmen, risen to commanders and post-captains themselves. Reade and Hanson belong to the "second generation"; by the end of the book series, Reade is a lieutenant in charge of the tender Ringle, while Hanson is on track for promotion to Lieutenant.
  • Potty Emergency: Normally, arrival at a secret prison run by one of the dreaded intelligence agencies is an imposing affair, which makes things all the funnier in The Surgeon's Mate when—as a result of having eaten some rather dubious crayfish—Jack, Jagiello, and their captor, the Consummate Professional Duhamel, all make a mad dash through the prison in search of a restroom upon arrival. (Stephen had medicated himself, so he's the one whom the astonished prison officers turn to for an explanation.)
  • Privateer: Encountered often. Jack even becomes a privateer captain himself at one point.
  • Proper Lady: Sophie, contrasted with her Spirited Young Lady cousin Diana. Although she's quite spirited herself at times.
    Stephen: If any man so far forgot himself as to make a licentious suggestion to Sophie, she would not understand him for a week, and then she would instantly lay him dead with [Jack's] double-barreled fowling piece.
  • Pun: This is one of Jack's most beloved forms of humour ... though he takes such honest, innocent joy in his wretched jokes that readers are usually more inclined to laugh with him than groan.
  • Put on a Bus: Reverend Martin, Dr. Maturin's frequent companion on naturalist expeditions, is sent home to England for medical reasons.
  • Remember When You Blew Up a Sun?: despite the huge, huge list of accomplishments that Aubrey pulls off as a captain, the one that comes up most often in-universe is his first: Sophie versus Cacafuego. Stephen Maturin's own such moment also comes during his first adventure with Jack, when he successfully trepans a crew member to repair a brain injury; his naval friends, colleagues and crewmates cite this ever after as prima facie evidence of his sheer awesomeness in the field of medicine.
  • The Remnant: The series offers various iterations of this, particularly involving the British-American War of 1812 - sailing ships may have been at sea for months, and not be aware of current events; this can be further complicated by two ships having different sailing dates, and hence different notions of the situation. Averted, in that this is a well-known problem and sometimes results in awkward stand-offs while the situation is resolved.
  • Renaissance Man : Natural philosophers of the age embraced this trope, but Badass Bookworm Dr. Maturin especially does so. See the Cultured Warrior entry above.
    • Jack Aubrey, astronomer/telescope builder/mathematician/Member of Parliament/musician, also fits well with this trope.
    • Rule of Funny : There's no real reason a keenly observant, organized mind like Maturin's should be so completely inept at remembering basic nautical facts, especially ones explained to him repeatedly.
      • Perhaps more that he is utterly uninterested in the subject, but it's still pretty hilarious.
      • Actually, he takes pride in his "not inconsiderable maritime knowledge," often using nautical expressions on land. At one point Jack has to reassure him when he's feeling a little low about this (the phrase "Thou wilt never shit a seaman's turd" is mentioned). Rule of Funny in full force.
  • Rich Language, Poor Language: The RP of the officers (who tend to be born upper-class) versus the Cockney-like accent that the ship's company tends to adopt over time.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: patients of Stephen's surgery have an amazingly high chance of survival, even given his skill and his dedication to cleanliness. Midway through the series, he is shown pouring alcohol onto a patient's skin before surgery, explaining that the sudden coldness of its evaporation numbs the patient and lessens the pain. Since this was decades before the widespread acceptance of germ theory, Stephen could not have known that he was disinfecting his patients and lessening the chance of post-surgery infection.
  • Running Gag:
    • Stephen Maturin's signature ability to fall out of any boat or ship. Eventually he gets better at this, but by that time it's too late: due to his reputation for such he is usually assisted aboard, much to his indignation. (On the other hand the officers have learned to cope; for a while it was standard practice to have a jar of oil ready—just in case Stephen's pocketwatch gets a dunking when he's trying to board, and needs to be cleaned of water.)
    • Conversely, the sailors are usually much more used to small craft than they are to horse-drawn carriages. Several minor incidents ensue.
    • Young Midshipman Babbington's obsession with prostitutes. On one visit to Plymouth, Aubrey had to empty his pockets beforehand as the only way of keeping him "passably chaste"; on other occasions he's usually the first to the sickbay after shore leave due to VD, and in his later appearances his growth appears to have been permanently stunted due to pox. (Not that it stops him from being an excellent lieutenant.)
      • An associated one is Jack's constant need to vouch for that Babbington lost his nose in honourable action and not to syphilis.
  • Sanity Slippage: Horner the gunner, over the first two-thirds or so of The Far Side of the World.
  • Sealed Orders: Make an appearance in The Commodore. O'Brian even goes into detail about how they come with lead and are to be thrown overboard if the ship is taken.
  • Secret Weapon:
    • Polychrest was originally designed to carry one — a large rocket delivery system. Unfortunately, once it killed its inventor, the Navy was left with a ship that wasn't going to be firing off giant rockets... and wasn't much good for anything else, unless you count sailing backwards.
    • The French were convinced that Worcester carried one due to its amazing technicolor muzzle flashes, and ran like hell after the first broadside. Turned out to be the surplus firework gunpowder that Jack had brought for gunnery practice.
  • Servile Snarker: Killick. Well, less "snarking", more "shrewish nagging." Jack and Stephen put up with him all the same.
  • Shown Their Work: Is absolutely littered with historical details about the workings of a British navy ship.
    • Except for the one time O'Brian skimped on research - Book 6 (The Fortune of War), with the aforementioned Frenchies running around a Boston where they wouldn't be welcome (because, in the War of 1812, Boston — and New England in general — was the center of anti-war feeling and pro-British, or more accurately, pro-free-trade-with-Britain, sentiment). Another character makes a horse-driven round trip from Boston to Salem in a mere two hours.
      • Also the aforementioned problem of the "marthambles", though in that case it was more a question of O'Brian not going deep enough into the contemporary materials.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: When Stephen finally has enough of Mrs. Williams' badgering of Jack Aubrey and his family, he coldly informs her that unless she stops he will inform the authorities about her illegal gambling racket.
  • Sin Eater: A subplot in Master and Commander involves a historically accurate version of a Sin-Eater. The crewman Cheslin was a sin-eater who symbolically ate the sins of the deceased, a role for which he is stigmatized. He goes to sea to try and escape the stigma but is rejected by the ship's crew and almost starves to death before Maturin takes him on as a Loblolly boy (i.e. an unskilled medical assistant) but has to keep an eye on him as he has a habit of mixing substances into the crew's medicine as revenge for their mistreatment of him.
  • Slashed Throat: How Stephen deals with a French intelligence agent during a particularly harrowing day. When he coolly relates the fact to a fellow in British Naval intelligence, the other is quietly shocked and terrified.
  • Slut-Shaming: In keeping with the tone of the era, sex is dirty and shameful and everyone does it, but only women are punished for it. Men may be called "the very merest rakes", and it might hinder promotion prospects, but they're not poverty-stricken outcasts for it.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Maturin will often use Latin around patients both to keep them from knowing what he is saying (when he is talking to another physician or an assistant who also speaks Latin) and because patients are reassured by the fact that their doctor is learned enough to speak Latin. The crews of the ships he serves on often brag that their ship has a real physician that speaks Latin and Greek.
  • Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Even accounting for the Frozen in Time aspect of the series, the child characters age more rapidly than one would expect. General Aubrey's last-born son (and Jack's half-brother) gets the full SORAS treatment, apparently being a teenager by the end of the series, though the other children in the series seem to still be in their pre-teen years.
    • Stephen's daughter Brigid is conceived, born, and grows to perhaps four or five years old during the 'extended' 1813, but Jack's son George, born 1808, is still young enough to be a playmate for her.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Diana is an extreme example, contrasted with her Proper Lady cousin Sophie.
  • Spy Drama: Very much Stale Beer-or should we say Stale Grog-Flavored.
    • Interestingly, with a few exceptions such as his activities in Boston Maturin's spy work is often basically paperwork. Deadly, deadly paperwork. We hear repeated references to his allowing particular pieces of information to be 'captured' which lead to the deaths of numerous enemy agents and, in one case, the collapse of a French intelligence department. Maturin with a prepared notebook is a dangerous thing.
  • The Spymaster: Sir Joseph Blaine, amateur entomologist, learned scholar, Stephen's close friend, and head of the British intelligence service, who often assigns missions for Stephen and who uses his influence to protect Jack.
  • Stern Chase: Classical nautical stern chases occur throughout the series, most prominently in Desolation Island, between the Leopard and the Waakzamheit.
  • Stout Strength: Captain Jack Aubrey himself. He weighs about 18 stone (~250 pounds), and Dr. Maturin often frets about his weight and tries to get him to eat less. But he's still fit enough to lead his crew into hand-to-hand battles and scramble up the ship's ropes like an ape. If you have ever tried to climb up a sailing ship's rigging, you will grasp that he is, even by modern standards, quite physically fit.
    • Jack is quite tall (his exact height isn't recorded, but is probably at least 6 feet, in a period where most men were under that; Napoleon is always depicted as being short but was probably actually of average or, according to some recent research, even slightly above average height for his time). His 18 stone probably doesn't hang on him in such an unseemly manner as might be supposed by modern readers.
      • Russell Crowe had to put on some weight for the movie, but he's not portly. "The Captain has an uncommon genteel figgar"
    • In The Ionian Mission, Jack narrowly loses a race in the ship's rigging to a sixty-something admiral (it's strongly implied Jack intentionally slows himself on the way down so that he loses by a hair).
  • Story Arc: Though the first four books are largely standalone, later books are grouped into larger story arcs, with even larger story arcs weaving in and out in-between. A fair rule of thumb is that once Aubrey makes it back to Britain, an arc has ended and another will begin soon. For instance:
    • Desolation Island to The Surgeon's Mate has Aubrey and Maturin getting caught up in the War of 1812, being captured by and then escaping the Americans (and dealing with French intelligence services along the way).
    • The Ionian Mission and Treason's Harbour deal with Jack Aubrey's return to the Mediterranean and his various diplomatic endeavours there. This arc is more or less wrapped up in The Far Side of the World.
    • The Reverse of the Medal kicks off Jack's stint as a privateernote , which culminates in an epic circumnavigation spanning three different commands (Diane, Nutmeg of Consolation, and Surprise) and five books, from The Letter of Marque (nearly the entirety of which deals with preparations for the journey) to The Wine-Dark Sea.
    • The Commodore, The Yellow Admiral, The Hundred Days, and Blue at the Mizzen are more closely stand-alone novels, though they form a loose "flag rank" story arc that deals with Jack's promotion to an admiral and his command of a squadron spanning the end of and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Superstitious Sailors: Mariners' superstitions are a recurring motif in the series. Sometimes it's a particular plot point, but more often simply part of the "background noise" of the characters' world (e.g., Jack touching wood to ward of bad luck that might arise from hubris).
  • Sweetie Graffiti: Jack carving his name into the Surprise.
  • Tap on the Head: Played realistically. In The Fortune of War, someone pushes Stephen off a moving horse-cab. He injures his ribs and hits his head. While he can get up and walk, it's none too steadily, and he pukes from the nausea later. The pain in his head helps distract him and nearly gets him killed.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Sir Joseph Blaine is temporarily forced into retirement as a result of Wray's efforts. From his position, however, he still wields immense influence behind the scenes, and leads the hunt for the spy; eventually, after Wray and Ledward are unmasked, he gets his position back.
  • Those Two Guys: Mowett and Rowan, two lieutenants who endlessly compete in poetry afloat and drinking ashore. Their poetic rivalry (Mowett's high-flown, Rowan's cheerful doggerel) is featured mainly in "The Ionian Mission".
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Jack is frequently mentioned to be fond of Killick's soused hog's head. Jack and Stephen also snack on coffee and grilled cheese during their music nights, to the point that Jack feels compelled to apologize when his stock of cheese runs out.
  • Tropical Island Adventure: The Mauritius Command, The Far Side of the World, The Thirteen-Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation and Clarissa Oakes all prominently feature tropical island locales.
  • 21-Gun Salute: This shows up frequently in the series; fitting, as the tradition originated with the navy in the 17th century and this is a naval series set in the 19th. A captain gets a certain number of guns, an admiral a certain number more. After a particularly well fought battle in the first book, a number of ships fire off their guns as a salute to the HMS Sophie and her crew.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife:
    • Stephen is short (one source gives his height as 5'6"), dark, variously described as "scrawny" or "squat", pale, sloppily dressed (he has an unfortunate habit of smearing ink or grease on such nice items of clothing as he is able to obtain), his only remarkable feature being his pale eyes. Nonetheless, after many trials, he's able to win the hand of the dazzling beauty Diana Villiers.
    • Jack is big, strongly built (and rather stout, though probably not obese by modern standards), ruddy, blond, with twinkling blue eyes, and absolutely covered with scars from numerous battles, including a mostly-missing right ear. He's a good deal better-looking than his friend Stephen, but he's no Adonis either. His wife is the lovely blonde English Rose Sophie Williams.
      • Once pointed out by a female prisoner, who happens to see him swimming naked. Maturin replies "Perhaps he is a bit cut about. But you will notice that his scars are all received honorably from the front, except those that are from the rear."
  • Unreliable Narrator
    • Early on the aphorism "Today's wardroom joint is tomorrow's messdeck stew" is introduced. Meaning that anything officers discuss today will be hazily retold by the crew tomorrow.
    • Usually O'Brian gives both reliable and unreliable versions of events to contrast them, but occasionally only the crew's version will be told, leaving the reader guessing as to what actually happened.
      • In The Commodore, Preserved Killick, Jack's steward, tells Barret Bonden, the Captain's coxswain, about domestic unrest in the Aubrey household. This is in fact something of an aversion of the trope, as Killick, who has served under the Captain since the beginning of the series, is as well-acquainted as anyone else alive with what makes his master tick; and he's talking to another very old shipmate and friend, Bonden, who knows Jack just as well as Killick does.
    • Jack himself is an unreliable narrator to his wife, deliberately describing naval actions as loud, exciting, and generally bloodless as opposed to the harrowing and gruesome events they are. A classic example is describing a boarding action, in which impressed former pirates take an enemy vessel and systematically kill everyone on board, then calmly loot the bodies while the decks run with blood, with a 'we carried the day'.
    • In The Truelove, a red silk wedding dress is striking and symbolic of trouble to the reader, while being unremarkable to the characters, since white wedding dresses were uncommon at best at the time — a wedding dress would just be the nicest dress the lady owned or could afford, regardless of color. White wedding dresses did not become standard issue for brides in the Western world until The Victorian Era.
  • What a Piece of Junk: HMS Sophie in the first book. She's actually a brig (a two-masted coastal patrol vessel), but officially listed as a three-masted frigate due to social promotion — brigs were considered lieutenants' commands, so rather than demote the commander, the Navy promoted the ship. That becomes a problem when she's expected to handle the duties of a vessel of her rating. She's old, leaky, slow before the wind, slower in turning, has a pittance of a broadside and even less chase armament, and her crew is both woefully understrength and composed of an equal mix of total lubbers, press-ganged felons and near-senile old salts. Through a mix of clever naval engineering and just-as-clever social engineering, Aubrey manages to turn her into an absolutely deadly commerce raider anyway.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: O'Brian uses a number of fictitious places in the course of the series, with varying degrees of geographical specificity. The semi-piratical English West Country port of Shelmerston and the fictional Polynesian island of Moahu are two particularly noteworthy examples.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: A particularly pure version of this trope.
  • Worthy Opponent: Many, many examples throughout the series, from Master and Commander onwards. Jack, for instance, is in the habit of having a defeated enemy captain keep his sword (which the vanquished is traditionally supposed to give to the victor as token of surrender) if his antagonist has fought with particular gallantry.
    • Jack and his officers will sometimes correct others if those people make slighting remarks about the opposition; for instance, in H.M.S. Surprise, a passenger aboard the Surprise speculates that the French must be acting in a cowardly fashion during a certain sea battle. Jack (or one of his officers) quickly demurs, praising the French for their gallantry and pointing out that the French commander is actually waiting to gain a tactical advantage.
    • In The Nutmeg of Consolation, Jack is displeased when Stephen tells him that he's arranged to have the gunpowder resupply of a French frigate (which Jack very much desires to engage and, if possible, capture) cut off. This is because Jack feels that it wouldn't be a fair fight to take on a ship that can't shoot back. However, the Frenchmen encounter a Dutch merchantman and confiscate her store of gunpowder, thus ensuring that they'll have enough for the battle. A bit later on, we see one of the most heartwarming examples of this trope when Jack, commanding the Nutmeg, has finally brought the Frenchman to battle and defeated her. Due to circumstances resulting in the death of most of the ship's senior officers, the enemy vessel had ended up being commanded by a young lieutenant who happened to be the nephew of Jack's French naval friend Christy-Palliere, and whom Jack had met during the brief Peace of Amiens while the young fellow was attending school in England and staying with Christy-Palliere's British relations. Jack had been worried sick that the boy might be wounded or even killed during the engagement, and when he sees that the young man is just fine, he's so overjoyed that when the other offers him his sword, Jack says, "No, no! Keep your sword and give me your hand!"
    • In The Surgeon's Mate, the American commander Lawrence of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, mortally wounded in battle with the H.M.S. Shannon at the end of The Fortune of War, is buried in Halifax with full military honors, the funeral being attended by every senior British naval officer on hand including Jack (who is still recovering from serious wounds sustained in the destruction of H.M.S. Java by the Constitution in the previous book).
    • And as for The Fortune of War, the climactic ship-to-ship battle between the Shannon and Chesapeake is organized in a punctiliously formal way that shows beyond a doubt that both captains regard each other as worthy opponents.
    • Throughout the entire series, there are many, many incidents which show a strong feeling of professional kinship among the men who sail the seas and serve their respective countries in their navies. This is closely related to The Laws and Customs of War (see entry above); there is a strong sense of what is "done" and "not done" in naval warfare and an equally strong code of honor and respect between professional naval officers, which becomes a plot point on more than a few occasions.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: If everything's going well by the end of one book, expect it to have changed by the start of the next.
  • You Don't Want to Catch This: Maturin uses the plague this way in the first book.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Alluded to in The Letter of Marque, after Jack is framed for stock fraud. Mrs. Williams doesn't think for a moment that he's innocent, but she thoroughly approves of what she thinks he did (i.e., defraud the stock market of potentially thousands of pounds).

Alternative Title(s): Master And Commander