Book Review: Patrick O’Brian’s Navy Edited by Richard O’Neill

Ever wondered about the differences between a ship-of-the-line and a frigate? Do you know the differences between a blue, white, or red admiral? Why was the British Royal Navy so successful in the 16th, 17th, and early-18th centuries? Many of those questions are answered in the pages of this book. Like many other books on the subject, consulting editor Richard O’Neill has put together a volume that focuses on the British Royal Navy and is clearly meant more as an introduction for those who are new to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin (Master & Commander) series. The result is yet another well-illustrated addition to the litany of works already out there about life on the high seas in the Napoleonic Era.

As I mentioned in my review of War at Sea in the Age of Sail by Bernard Ireland, my familiarity with the geopolitics and naval warfare of the time period is mostly cursory. Hence, I had some difficulty with the information presented in Ireland’s book. However, O’Neill’s book is much easier to digest and each chapter discusses a broad topic such as the different types of warships in the Royal Navy, the role of frigates, or common battle tactics in use at the time. The book moves along logically and with language that is easy to comprehend. In addition, the book is well-illustrated with paintings, diagrams, and a handful of maps, where appropriate.

Interestingly, apart from the first couple of chapters, this is not a book about the geopolitical history of the era. It also does not cover all of the famous naval battles since only three actions are examined in detail (1 fleet engagement, 1 amphibious landing, & 1 frigate engagement). More so, the majority of the text details the life of the sailors, the organization aboard ships, and the culture of the Royal Navy. Throughout the book, there are references to the Aubrey/Maturin series and how the character Jack Aubrey fits into this world. However, be forewarned that it does contain some spoilers regarding the plots of the novels.

While perhaps a little derivative of other works out there, this is a fairly good read for those needing a more accessible introduction to the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Era. My only gripe is that the text ends somewhat abruptly. The final chapter describes crimes and punishments in the Royal Navy, including pirates and privateers, but then the narrative goes no further and there’s no conclusion to wrap things up.

Overall: 4 out of 5

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