Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Patrick O'Brian, Part 3

The Thirteen Gun Salute
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

After The Letter of Marque, I took an extended break from reading the "Aubreyiad," mainly because a number of Young Adult titles urgently needed the Book Trolley's attention. Even after a year or more, when I came back to the Aubrey-Maturin cycle I found my place instantly, like going home. As I live in my "fort made of books," I find myself increasingly reading books specifically for the Trolley - and very often, falling in love with them. But there is a second class of books that I enjoy and love for their own sake, and then add to the Book Trolley anyway. This series is among them.

When we last left Captain Jack Aubrey, R.N., he was in command of the privately-owned frigate Surprise (owned by his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin), a "letter of Marque" with official papers entitling her to capture enemy ships and exempting her crew from impressment by Royal Navy ships. As this thirteenth Aubrey-Maturin novel opens, the Surprise sets sail on a mission to harass French and American shipping in South American waters, while Stephen - naval intelligence agent extraordinaire - is to aid the independence movement in the Spanish colonies.

This intriguing plot never comes to fruition, however. As soon as the Surprise touches in Lisbon, Aubrey and Maturin receive new orders. Suddenly Lucky Jack is restored to the list of Post-Captains with his former seniority, and handed the command of the very frigate that he recently captured from the French. Awkwardly thrust onto the quarterdeck of the Diane, and wistfully regretting his less regimented life on the Surprise, Jack rapidly prepares for sea while Stephen warms up for a masterpiece of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Together with a government envoy named Fox, they flog the Diane halfway around the world in hopes of stopping the French - and especially the despicable Ledward and Wray - from forging an alliance with a Malay sultan.

The main part of this novel is a tale of political intrigue and natural beauty in what is now Indonesia. For a time, the adventure focuses on Stephen as he buys influence and undermines the French diplomats and the English traitors who serve them. It is an episode full of assassins, insurrectionists, savage customs (such as a form of execution involving a sack half-full of pepper), and the severe climate - to say nothing of the sensuous and even mystical delights of an hard-to-reach valley where wild animals live without fear of man. Plus, once the treaty is signed, Fox undergoes an alarming personality change. But Jack gets his crisis too, when the Diane fetches up on an uncharted reef and then gets caught in a deadly typhoon.

It's wonderful to be back among friends - especially friends who seem to attract so much thrilling intrigue and adventure to themselves. The life of ninteenth-century British navy men on land and sea comes to life again in O'Brian's skilled hands. Assuredly, I will not wait so long before reading the next book, The Nutmeg of Consolation.

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