by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+
The Fortune of War
The sixth of twenty completed novels about a 19th-century Royal Navy captain named Jack Aubrey and his faithful ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is unusual in many ways. For example, in this book Aubrey is never in command of anything larger than a rowboat. As O’Brian explains in the preface, the book dramatizes actual events in naval history, inserting his fictional characters into the action. Yet even though they don’t dsiplace any of the real people who took part in these events — for example, Aubrey commands none of the ships that fight in the book’s two thrilling battle scenes — O’Brian’s characters make this story very much their own.
Now think about it. It’s a historically accurate account of real events in which Jack and Stephen did not play any major role. Yet the adventure is wholly theirs. So obviously, a lot more is going on in this book than just a reconstruction of a couple naval battles. In fact, most of the action takes place on land—on American soil, no less.
At this point in England’s war against Napoleon, the United States has joined the other side. Or rather, the U.S. has declared war on the U.K. Why? Because the Royal Navy has been strangling American trade, insulting American ships, molesting their crews (some of whom are deserters from the R.N.), and just generally acting as if the colonies still belonged to them. So what history bizarrely calls the “War of 1812” (though it lasted until 1814, and wasn’t the only war going on in that year) has become an inconvenience to the R.N. What with France, Spain, and basically the rest of Europe out to get them, England didn’t really need to pick a fight on a whole other front. And worse, the puny American Navy hasn’t proven as harmless as expected. The first three engagements between the two navies have ended 3-0 in America’s favor — a record all the more crushing, considering Britain’s longstanding naval supremacy around the world.
It’s also discouraging for Jack and Stephen, who are on their way home from the East Indies in a fast dispatch ship, which then sinks; who then survive a gruelling ordeal in a small boat filled with far too many men and far too little food and water; who have scarcely come aboard the first British ship they meet when it is taken and sunk by an American frigate; and who find themselves more or less confined to a lunatic asylum in Boston while waiting for Jack to recover from his wounds and to be exchanged for an American prisoner of war.
But all this only sets the stage for the real adventure! For until now, no one outside Naval Intelligence has known that Stephen is also a spy—indeed, a gifted spy who has done a great deal of damage to French intelligence. Now French intelligence is closing in, planning to do a great deal of damage to Stephen. While Jack sits at his hospital window, watching the American ships in the harbor and the British ships blockading it, Stephen finds himself caught in a tightening net of enemy agents—while at the same time, forced to confront the woman who has repeatedly broken his heart, as far back as Post Captain.
The result is a high-tension, action-filled tale full of the double-crosses of love, the shocking violence of war, chases, escapes, courage, cowardice, bitter loss, desperate survival, government inefficiency, Chinese poetry, reverses, triumphs, battles against depression and substance abuse, fascinating cultural and historical detail, glimpses into medicine, music, natural science, and a seldom-seen viewpoint (for Americans, at least) into the war that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The evidence has been gathering, bit by bit, and it has reached the point where I must mention it. I believe that J. K. Rowling has read these books! Call it a wild guess, if you will. But already, in these first six books, I have encountered characters named Wetherby and Snape; a woman with a Kreacher-like habit of murmuring her private thoughts aloud; and scenes that reminded me, for instance, of the time Fudge came to question Harry in the hospital wing after Cedric died. The influence may be slight, but worth looking into nevertheless; any excuse to urge you to take a break from the fantasy world of wizardry and look into the equally brilliant fantasy world of old-time seamanship, gunnery, and intrigue.
The Surgeon's Mate
Here is the seventh of twenty novels in a series of adventures in historical/naval fiction that inspired the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As in the other books, this one views the Napoleonic wars from the eyes of experienced Royal Navy Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, and his best friend, ship’s surgeon and intelligence officer, Dr. Stephen Maturin. The action picks up where The Fortune of War left off, with the pair escaping from the hostile American navy, along with the woman who has repeatedly broken Stephen’s heart.
The furious pursuit of the other man in Diana’s life – a very dangerous American named Johnson – puts a thrill into the opening pages of this book. But soon, even more dangerous adventures are afoot, including an attempt to make a heavily fortified, and strategically important, island switch sides in the war; a thrilling chase through the stormy waters of the English channel; and imprisonment in a crumbling tower in Paris where Stephen’s dangerous past catches up to him.
If you have read other books from this series, you will have come to expect a winning combination of historical detail, fascinating character development, highly charged suspense, sizzling intrigue, electrifying action, humor, romantic longings, tragedy, and social satire. In each of the books, there are pages of philosophical reflection, passages of captivating poetry, scenes of shocking violence, and clever tricks of warfare that will make you gape with wonder. Plus, you always learn something about natural history, arts and humanities, and the theory and practice of sailing a ship of war. This book more than lives up to those expectations.
An author who can write "page-turningly" about all these things can be no less than a Renaissance Man—and this book is a Renaissance Book. It could be used as a history textbook or even a course of study in great English literature. As if you care, when you are surrounded by the thunder and smoke of a roaring broadside, sailing blind in a storm over a lee shore, or sweating through the interrogation of a suspected spy. I warrant that this is one of those books that acts like a time machine, putting you right in the middle of the scrapes, escapes, and escapades.
Since I got to the point quickly, I believe there is enough space for a tantalizing quote:
"There you are, Stephen," he cried. "Good morning to you. I did not look to see you yet awhile, and I am sorry to say I have ate the last of the bacon. The dish was empty before I was aware."
"It is always the same old squalid tale," said Stephen. "May I at least hope there is a tint of coffee left?"
"Had you shown a leg sooner, you would have saved your bacon," said Jack. "Ha, ha, ha, Stephen: did you hear that? Saved your bacon: it came to me in a flash."
"Sure there is nothing like spontaneous wit," said Stephen: and after a pause.
The Ionian Mission
At a certain point in this book, Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey describes the “ideal” naval battle, as he sees it. Like many other plans and anticipated outcomes throughout this series, that battle never happens. It would be surprising if it did; for, having described it through the thoughts and words of his characters, by letting the actual events meet his characters’ hopes and expectations author O’Brian would be repeating himself. And he was far, far too good a storyteller to do that.
This is the eighth in the series of twenty historical novels that began with Master and Commander. For those of you tuning in late, this series is set in the early 19th century, during the British naval war against Napoleon and his allies. As always, Patrick O’Brian has done his homework, recreating the conditions, culture, language, politics, and technology of a past age and bringing them vibrantly, excitingly to life. If you have read this far in the series, I believe you will find (as I do) that the old-fashioned language and sometimes dense sailing jargon becomes so transparent that you see, hear, and feel the loneliness of a ship’s captain on a long blockade, the tension of a chase, the roar of a battle, and many other things that range from delightful to disturbing.
Many familiar characters – some of them beloved, some of them despised – are back in full force in The Ionian Mission. Naturally the bill is topped by Jack Aubrey, jolly, larger-than-life, a genius at sea and a fool on land; and on an equal footing is his best friend, musical partner, ship’s physician and secret agent, Dr. Stephen Maturin. Two more wholly different individuals can scarcely be imagined, yet it is hard to imagine them being separated for long. Then there are Jack’s adoring but slightly shrewish wife Sophie; Stephen’s new bride (and an odd couple they are); Jack’s followers Pullings, Babbington, and Mowett; his faithful coxswain Bonden; and the captain’s steward Killick, contrary as always. Old Admiral Harte (that son of a blue French fart) is back, and other characters from the past.
But many new arrivals make this novel stand out from the series. Another scholarly intelligence operative arrives... a fearsome Admiral pines for a good battle... agonizingly suspenseful confrontations with the French, troubles with discipline, secret rendezvous gone bad, and desolately dull periods of monotonous blockading fill the first half of the book, set in the Mediterranean. Then the real “Ionian Mission” kicks in when Jack and Stephen become jointly responsible for deciding which of three rival Turkish rulers to back in a quarrel over a fortified harbor town, in hopes of gaining an ally against the French. The book transforms itself into a masterpiece of political intrigue, building up to a climactic battle after which the novel ends so swifly that you are desperate for more!
I am sure I am not the first to point this out, but Patrick O’Brian is not just a dry author of intricately researched historical novels – nor is he merely a writer of naval adventures. You get both, as well as an intimate account of the complexities of his rich characters and their messy, difficult, and yet deeply entertaining lives. These are great books; this is a great book. It is difficult to put down; difficult not to plunge straight into the next book in the series (Treason’s Harbour); and difficult to forget.
The first thing you’re going to say is, “There isn’t a U in the word Harbor” – at least if you’re an American and you haven’t read much British literature that hasn’t been brutally Americanized. (Case in point: Harry Potter and the “Sorcerer’s” Stone – and someone help me here – what on earth is a “sorcerer’s stone” supposed to be?). So right away, the title clues you in that the English of this book is not quite what you learned at Adlai E. Stevenson Middle School. It is a very “English” English, and not just because it comes from across the Atlantic. It is an English beamed through a time warp from an age when the Sun Never Set on the British Empire – in spite of Napoleon Buonaparte’s best efforts to cast that empire into eternal darkness. It is a language full of wit and character, dancing and playing, conjuring visions of dangerous intrigues on land and intense confrontations at sea, a language that effortlessly impersonates a bygone age, though it was written as recently as when some of us (ahem) were at Adlai E. Stevenson Middle School.
Patrick O’Brian delighted in language, and he also delighted history. In fact, he was so devoted to historical detail that this “Aubrey-Maturin” series of historical novels is only superficially fiction. The naval chases, battles, and day-to-day details all come from first-hand accounts and official documents of the period, namely somewhere around the year 1812. But that only gets us as far as the stark (albeit staggering) outlines of the story. The flesh and blood of it is made up of deeply human, fascinating characters such as the often (but not always) jolly Captain Jack Aubrey, and his seemingly absent-minded-professorish best friend and ship’s physician Stephen Maturin – who, appearances aside, is one of the most efficient and dangerous agents serving His Majesty’s Naval Intelligence.
This book is the ninth in the series, and as far as I can tell (at this early stage of reading The Far Side of the World) it is also the middle book of a trilogy within that series. It is hard to say so categorically, however. All of the books to this point have traced a more or less continuous arc; only this book picks up directly where The Ionian Mission left us hanging, and The Far Side of the World (lately made into a roaring good film) picks up where this book abruptly ends. Each book, however, has its own distinct tale to tell.
As far is this tale goes, good old “Lucky Jack” does not feel so lucky any more. Harassed by financial and legal difficulties at home, burdened by the knowledge that his beloved frigate Surprise will soon be taken out of service, his excellent crew scattered around the fleet, and his beloved officers set on land with precious little chance of getting out to sea again, Jack is given not one but two missions in this book – and as he himself admits, he makes a cock of both of them. The real story behind these failures, however, has to do with espionage, blackmail, and betrayal in the port of Valletta – a seamy, politically unstable headquarters for the British fleet in the Mediterranean. French agents have so infiltrated the government that the enemy seems to know what the British are planning before the British know themselves – and they use this knowledge to sabotage delicate missions and to set deadly traps.
Dogged by rumors that one or the other of them is having an affair with a very lovely officer’s wife who is forced, by threats against her husband’s life, to turn spy against them... targeted by a network of French agents who want them destroyed more than anything in the world... dragged through searing deserts, blown through a vicious sandstorm on the Red Sea, tricked, robbed, ambushed, betrayed, and even sent to the bottom of the sea, Jack and Stephen are tested to the limits of their considerable powers – and of their great friendship – in ths exciting, suspenseful, and often funny book. Besides all the action and suspense, your reading experience is colored by fascinating cultures, natural and technological wonders, razor-keen character drama, and of course... wonderful, playing, dancing language! And when the end sets its hook into you, you will be (to borrow a phrase from Stephen himself) “with child” to find out what happens in the next book!
The Far Side of the World
Like many who are now discovering the thrills and pleasures of Patrick O’Brian’s naval fiction, my first exposure to the Aubrey-Maturin series was the film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A film with two titles, taken respectively from the first and the tenth book in this twenty-book series. As I read the first nine books, I gathered that the film title was meant to “book-end” the part of the series from which the script was taken. For nearly every book contained at least one scene or piece of dialogue that I remembered from the movie. So by the time I started reading The Far Side of the World, I wondered what would be left of the film’s storyline that I hadn’t already read.
Not very many things were left, I found. Basically, this book furnishes the setting of the movie: the decks of HMS Surprise in pursuit of an enemy ship, down the Atlantic Coast of South America and up the Pacific side. It also introduces (and in some cases, disposes of) several of the memorable, minor characters that you saw in the movie. But apart from that, trust me, the film doesn’t give away anything that happens in this book. No matter how many times you have seen the film, it is still worth your while to read this book!
Against all likelihood, given his seniority and his accomplishments, Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey still has not been given a “ship of the line” to command – not permanently, anyway. After a series of temporary commands and an unusually long run of adventures in the frigate Surprise, Aubrey has learned that the Surprise is about to be put out of service. His heart is heavy, for it means he will be set on land without a command, facing financial ruin at home, while his crack crew is broken up and scattered around the fleet. Then a stroke of luck comes: a chance to pursue an American ship that has been harrassing British whalers in the south seas. It is enough to keep the Surprise and her crew going a bit longer... but it is almost the last good luck Aubrey sees in this commission.
Anyone who has read the series this far must care deeply for Jack, and for his dear friend Stephen Maturin, and many of the famliar faces in his crew. Nevertheless, it is hard not to enjoy their bad luck, when it affords us such a colorful adventure at sea. On the other hand, the ocean starts to seem awfully big, and the Surprise dangerously small upon it, in the series of disasters, setbacks, calms, maroonings, and deadly crimes that take place within these pages.
Consider what this tale has to offer: the tragedy of an adulterous couple, and the woman’s homicidal husband... men rescued from certain drowning by a ship full of man-hating, female savages... not one, but two incidents of being hopelessly stranded on a desert isle... a bitterly intense, cold war when enemy is cast down on the same shore... delicate intelligence work, life-or-death medical miracles, navigational wonders, beauteous creatures of the deep, humor, suspense, wordplay, masterful characterization, and a rich background of history, culture, and nautical precision... Penguins at the equator! Storms in the tropics! Storms in the Antarctic! Deadly sharks! The early stages of substance abuse!
Mature audiences are invited to experience all this and more, in this tenth part of O’Brian’s sprawling great novel about an early 19th century British naval hero and his scientific friend. I guarantee you will be quite surprised by this book, whether you have seen the film or not – particularly surprised by how exciting a naval novel can be, even without a single flow-blown, yardarm-to-yardarm battle!
The Reverse of the Medal
You came to the “Aubreyiad” – Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume masterpiece about British naval life in the age of Napoleon – to see feats of derring-do, flying splinters, flaring cannon, flashing swords, and maybe a few other sensuous pleasures such as the violin-cello duets played by Capt. Jack Aubrey and his physician-naturalist-spy-best friend, Stephen Maturin. You came for smoke and blood and deafening explosions, and you stayed even when more than one whole book went by without any battles at all.
Why? Because O’Brian (1914-2000) had a magic touch. He could transport you back to an age that, perhaps, you never thought much about – and does it so convincingly that you almost hate to leave it. He could open a window on the hearts of men who never lived, and make you believe in them utterly and implicitly. He could take a subject as far-removed from your personal experience as traveling to alien planets or casting magical spells – subjects such as 19th century European politics, fighting a duel, sailing a ship, firing a cannon, and so on – and make you feel like an expert on it without being at all pedantic or dull. And in The Reverse of the Medal he showed that he possessed yet another magical power. O’Brian could risk a once-for-all, irrevocable turning-point in a series that has already gone on for ten books – and manage to pull another ten books out of it!
The turning point is in The Reverse of the Medal, the eleventh book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. After an all-too-brief but quite exciting chase across the Atlantic, Aubrey comes on land facing irreversible changes in his life and the lives of his crew. The sweet-sailing old frigate Surprise is to be sold out of the service. His crack crew is to be split up among other ships. His valued officers are left on land with little hope of another naval commission. And he himself is haunted by legal, financial, and marital problems. But all these things are as nothing to the train of events set in motion during a night journey by coach. A stranger gives Aubrey a seemingly watertight stock tip...and before a week is out, the innocent captain has been arrested and charged with a crime that could end his naval career.
Based on the actual trial of an actual British naval hero, this remarkable “naval adventure” is really more about a shocking, infuriating, yet utterly inexorable process that alters the course of Aubrey’s journey forever. See for yourself as the journey continues in The Letter of Marque.
The Letter of Marque
Jack Aubrey is about to go back to sea, and in his beloved, sweet-sailing frigate Surprise to boot. Yet the joy of life, which has been such a great part of his personality, has gone out. In the previous book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Reverse of the Medal, Jack was convicted of a crime he did not commit, and stripped of his king’s commission as a Royal Navy officer. Now, in this twelfth book of Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent twenty-book novel of the ninteenth-century naval warfare and espionage, Jack is sailing as the captain of a private man-of-war – also known as a privateer, or a “letter of marque.” The ship is owned by his friend Stephen Maturin, widely known as a great surgeon and naturalist, less widely known to be a highly efficient intelligence agent.
Their mission is quite modest: to train a new privateer’s crew, in preparation for a long and possibly perilous “off the books” mission to South America. But a series of heroic engagements with enemy ships brings in unexpectedly rich prizes. And while Jack struggles, against profound depression and agonizing setbacks, to be reinstated as a naval captain, Stephen faces his own personal crisis. His marriage to Diana Villiers seems to be wrecked beyond repair, yet he must face her one more time. And one of the few things he has to support him in this time of anxiety – his precious laudanum – is being secretly diluted by an opium-eating servant with nearly tragic results.
To me, the most moving passage in this novel was the one in which Stephen finds himself a passenger onboard the Leopard, on which he and Jack Aubrey had sailed in former days (see Desolation Island). Even for an incurable landlubber like Stephen, seeing his former ship – even the horrible old Leopard – sunk to such a degree (no pun intended) is breathtakingly sad. When the ship’s officers learn that Stephen was on board Leopard in former, more glorious days, they compel him to tell them about her adventures in a passage that had the bittersweet ring of mourners, begging the chairman of a wake to repeat favorite stories of the dearly departed.
As one may have come to expect from previous books in this series, there are pages of suspense, humor, exciting naval battles, political intrigues, sympathetic depictions of friendship, family ties, and marriage. O’Brian is equally flawless when describing beautiful music, natural wonders, historic fashions and manners, and especially the peculiar and compelling characters of Aubrey and Maturin. A sense of foreboding throbs in the background of this story, like the unnerving Dies irae that Stephen plays on his cello one evening. And at the end of the story, you feel energized – even propelled – to enter the next adventure, titled The Thirteen-Gun Salute. [EDIT: That's the book I'm reading now, during intermissions at Powell Symphony Hall.]
IMAGES: Stills from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, featuring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin, and Billy Boyd as Barret Bonden, the captain's faithful coxswain.