Note - Spoilers ahead.
Years ago, when I was a little kid, my father read CS Forester's Hornblower novels, and liked them quite a bit. He did this for some time, and got through the whole series. Eventually I asked him what the Hornblower book he was reading was like, and he told me that this wasn't a Hornblower book, this was another book about a different Royal Navy captain, and it was better. This was my introduction to Patrick O'Brian.
Beginning towards the end of high school and going past the end of college I read all 20 complete novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series, or the 'Aubriad'* (the fan name that I prefer). And I adored them. Being bookish and feeling none too smooth with the ladies I loved Stephen. I suppose it's similar to the way many smart high school girls love Elizabeth Bennet. And I loved the long, meandering internal monologues, the slow subplots of Stephen and Jack's domestic lives, and the nautical minutia.
But (along with a bunch of book critics) I'd say that these are the best historical novels I've ever read. More than that, I'd say that taken as a whole they're some of the best literature I've ever read, and that includes all those more famous dead folks I read while in college. Why?