I 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.