The book itself was written in 1970, so it's like reading an old classic set amongst even older classics. The time period is roughly when Austen was writing, and some of the language reminded me of Austen -- particularly using "cried" as an emphatic version of "said".
I started the book on Friday and got about a hundred pages into it without making up my mind whether or not I liked and/or wanted to finish it. I didn't read it over the weekend, and brought a second book to work on Monday in case I decided against finishing it. It had been slow going; I found the naval passages indecipherable even when they were not laden with jargon, and even when the author is obviously taking pains to make them clear to the reader. It's not a coincidence that my break in reading it hit when Maturin -- the character who has no knowledge of naval affairs and is therefore as perplexed by boats as the presumed reader -- is being given a tour of the sloop. "You could not explain this maze of ropes and wood and canvas without using sea-terms, I suppose. No, it would not be possible." So on Monday I figured I'd stop trying so hard. If I couldn't visualize a given scene, I'd just move on to the next one.
Oddly, reading it remained slow-going even with this, and I did find myself several times with no real idea what the heck was happening in the current scene.
You might think that if one is reading military fiction and can't follow the battle scenes, one is missing the point completely. And maybe I was, but as it turns out, I loved the book anyway. One of the things that struck me about this is how undignified the protagonists could be, especially Aubrey. It's just -- I am not used to the protagonist of a generally serious book, the captain of a ship and an effective, intelligent leader, being portrayed as rather buffoonish at turns. And yet he is. The sloop's lieutenant, James Dillon makes this observation about Aubrey, in talking to Maturin: "There are times," said James quietly, "when I understand your partiality for your friend. He derives a greater pleasure from a smaller stream of wit than any man I have ever known."
And that is really Aubrey. He makes these sad, awful jokes that no one except him thinks are funny. The initial scene is of Aubrey at a music recital: where he is described as a man so large he eclipses his seat, and he spoils the performance for his neighbor by beating out the time in his enthusiasm. It's such clownlike imagery it took me a while to believe he was the protagonist and not somebody's sidekick or goofball foil. He has a kind of social obliviousness that can be both cringe-inducing and endearing, because he's well-meaning even when he's hopelessly clueless.
Yet for all this, he really is very good at his job, at being the commander of a vessel, and that's not just taken as authorial fiat but shown in dozens of ways small and large. The portrait of the character holds together well.
Maturin is the sensible grown-up of the story: everyone in the story likes him and it's pretty much impossible not to. I don't have as much to say about Maturin, but I love him too. I especially relate to the part where he's writing in his journal about how he likes both of his friends but really wants to throttle them for being so impossible. XD
Anyway, I will give it an 8 because I don't think I can justify a 9 for a book where I so often had trouble following the action. I suspect my difficulty there was more my fault than the author's; I'm sure people for whom military and/or historical fiction is more their genre would have an easier time of it. I don't know if my adoration for the characters is going to carry me through 19.5* more books about them, but I'm looking forward to reading the next one.
* O'Brian published 20 books in the Aubrey/Maturin series in his lifetime, and passed away while writing the 21st. It was published, unfinished, posthumously.