The Fortune of War

Fortune of WarI closed out 2012 with the sixth of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, The Fortune of War. This novel picks up shortly after Desolation Island, with Captain Jack Aubrey being released from command of the just-barely-seaworthy Leopard and reassigned to the Acasta, “a forty-gun frigate, pretty well the heaviest in the service.” But before he can take command of his new ship, Jack and Stephen and a handful of other Leopards need to make their way from the Dutch West Indies to England. They hitch a ride on the HMS La Flèche, but the initially pleasant journey turns disastrous when a fire breaks out on board.

After various misadventures at sea, Jack and Stephen end up in Boston, enemy territory as the War of 1812 rages. The Americans are aware that there was a spy on board the Leopard, which makes a straightforward prisoner exchange less likely. And Diana Villiers, the object of Stephen’s apparently unrequited love, reenters the scene, but she seems changed, and Stephen begins to question his feelings for her.

As I continue to read this series, I become more attached to the characters, which makes me enjoy each book more than the last. My feelings for Diana have been complicated since her very first appearance, and that continues to be the case. She’s such a complex character and impossible to pin down. And with this book Stephen’s own shifting feelings affected my feelings about Stephen. Diana has lost her vitality, for understandable reasons, and Stephen wonders if she’s the same woman at all. But I found myself sympathizing with her and a little annoyed at Stephen. But then—then—by the end of the novel, I was back to questioning her motives and sincerity. And there’s a huge question left unresolved at the end of the book. What will happen? What do I want to see happen? I don’t know!

Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited a local used bookstore and came across a cheap copy of A Sea of Words, Dean King’s lexicon and companion to this series. I kept it by my side as I read and ended up using it much less than I expected. One of the things O’Brian does really well is to immerse readers in his characters’ world by using what seems like authentic vocabulary but in such a way that you really don’t need to understand the details to follow the main points of the action.

Let me give you an example. Early in the book, the crew of the HMS Cumberland challenges the Leopards to a game of cricket. Stephen is invited to play, and although he’s never watched a match, he claims to understand the game and even makes his own bat.  I hardly know anything about cricket, and I didn’t learn anything new about it from this book. But everything about Stephen’s behavior before and during the match leads me to think he’s doing it wrong. How could I tell? From the hints O’Brian drops in his writing. And they are all just hints. Jack seems uneasy about Stephen’s bat, there’s too much build-up to Stephen’s joining the game, and the final moment of the match just feels wrong. And you don’t have to know anything about cricket to sense it (and Wikipedia confirms that my instincts were right).

So even though I’m happy to have a resource at hand to help me out if I get confused, I’m convinced that you don’t need to know your mizzen from your fo’c’sle to follow the action and enjoy these books.

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18 Responses to The Fortune of War

  1. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for the review. I may start reading through the series later this year. I am collecting the books to get ready. I am finding the paperback ones where the spines make a picture. I have all but three of them now, all from used book sources (i.e. cheap). :-).

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been getting my keeper copies used, too, but my library has them all, so I’ve been relying on library copies for what I haven’t found.

  2. I now have a bunch of these, purchased, like those of vanbraman above, from used book stores. 2013 may be the year I start to read them. Thanks for the review.

  3. Lisa says:

    And I keep meaning to re-read these – particularly after one of your reviews reminds me how wonderful they are. Well, it will have to wait (again), til after the TBR challenge. Though I’ll have to check – I can’t remember the details of the big question…

    • Teresa says:

      The big question is a variation of the “will they or won’t they” question. Diana agreed to marry Stephen, and they plan to do it on board ship on the way back to England, but will they? And will it remain just on paper?

  4. boardinginmyforties says:

    I’ve still never read any of this series. I purchased the first two many years ago, thinking my son would want to read them and he nor I never did! Glad you are enjoying the series. I’ll have to give the first one a try, one of these days!

    • Teresa says:

      Even if you don’t love the first one, you might want to try the second as well, because it’s pretty different and gives you an idea of O’Brian’s range and the different kinds of things he does with the series.

  5. Jenny says:

    Oh, I love this one. That scene you’re talking about, with the hurly/ cricket mix-up, is one of the funniest in a series that has so much grand humor in it. And I do so agree with you about Diana as one of the most wonderfully complex characters. It’s not often that you get a long-running character you can’t quite make up your mind about. Huzzah for Patrick O’Brian!

    • Teresa says:

      It is a hilarious scene, even if you don’t precisely understand what’s happening.

      I’m so pleased that in such a male-focused series, one of the most complex characters is a woman! (And Sophie, too, is really well drawn, although not nearly so complex.)

  6. Andrea says:

    I have been meaning to read Master & Commander for literally years now. I’ve started the Horatio Hornblower series and like it so far, so I’m sure I will like O’Brian’s books too. I love marine adventures!

  7. Ed says:

    I never understand the nautical terminology in O’Brian’s books but still enjoy reading it. On the other hand I am a big cricket fan and know a little bit about hurley so understood what was going on in that scene. This is actually a culture clash scene. Cricket is an English game and hurley is an Irish game. It is interesting to see that readers not familiar with cricket still enjoyed it.

    • Teresa says:

      O’Brian did such a great job with showing characters’ reactions to events that I could tell Stephen was making a mess of things–it was just the details that I wasn’t clear about. It really was similar to the way I can follow the characters’ feelings about the nautical action even if I don’t quite understand what they’re doing. It’s great writing.

      • Ed says:

        I had a look at the Wikipedia page that you linked and I had to make a correction to it. It originally said that cricket and hurley are similar games. Not at all true! Cricket is like baseball, and hurley is like hockey.

      • Teresa says:

        Yeah, Wikipedia is shaky on details sometimes, but the beauty of it is that we can correct is, as you just did :)

  8. I started the series gung ho many years ago, and then got stuck after The Mauritius Command–now, I want to resume, but I’m wondering whether I need to reread the first four first. I love A Sea of Words–like you, it’s nice to know I have it.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m trying to read one book every couple of months, to keep the story fresh. Perhaps you could find a good plot summary to refresh your memory on the first books?

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