I can’t believe I let a year and a half go by between Aubrey/Maturin books! But I read The Ionian Mission way back in May 2013 and am only just now getting around to this, the ninth book in Patrick O’Brian’s nautical adventure series. This book was just as enjoyable as any in the series, and the final sentence leaves me especially eager to see where the series is going next.
As I noted when I wrote about The Ionian Mission, these are difficult books to review. I could try comparing them to others in the series–better than The Ionian Mission and not as good as The Fortune of War–but the books read like one long story, and it’s not always easy to separate one from the other. Also, a lot of what I enjoy about these books is in the small incidents between the main events, little comic moments and pleasant bits of business between Jack and Stephen.
So, as with the last book, I’m going to treat this post primarily as a memory aid, a place to record where I am in the story and to store up all those moments that stood out to me.
This book begins with Jack and Stephen in Malta while the Surprise is being repaired. One of their chief amusements are the music parties held by Mrs. Laura Fielding, who also teaches Italian to Jack. Mrs. Fielding’s husband is being held prisoner by the French, and the French are using her to gather intelligence. To that end, she forms a relationship with Stephen Maturin, although she is suspected of being entangled with Jack Aubrey, thanks to her dog’s effusive affection for Jack.
Eventually, Jack is sent off on a secret mission to the Red Sea, that involves a long trek through the desert. The mission doesn’t go well. When Jack returns to Malta, he learns that his beloved Surprise is slated to be sold, as it is outdated. But he does get to go on a couple of final missions with the ship, only to face complications, including the escaped Mr. Fielding who has heard the rumors about Jack and his wife. Jack’s final mission in the novel ends in disaster, leading them to believe there’s an intelligence leak. The novel ends with this line from Stephen:
Not more than eight or perhaps nine men knew the contents of Jack’s orders; and if that does not enable Wray to lay his hands upon the prime chief Judas, then there is the very Devil in it.
!!!!!! Argh !!!!!!
And now for a few bits and pieces that I particularly enjoyed:
- Stephen’s diving bell. Everything about it. From the concept, which was new to me, to Jack’s alarm at its size to their using it to recover treasure from the bottom of the ocean.
- Arguments about dromedaries.
- Stephen climbing up so high to watch birds that he can’t figure out how to get down.
- Ponto! And Jack’s hilarious rescue of Ponto.
- Yet again Jack and Stephen are romantic rivals, and yet again they get over it and remain good friends. (Although, hey, guys, you are married.)
- Wray! (Is it appropriate to say I liked him? It’s not really him but his significance to the plot.)
- Jack’s wonderful horseback ride.
- Hairabedian’s plunge. (Another point I didn’t like, but how dramatic!)
- The way the Surprises behave when Mrs. Fielding is on board and Stephen’s observation that “a really handsome, thoroughly good-natured but totally inaccessible young woman, changed at stated intervals, before familiarity could set in, would be a very valuable addition to any man-of-war’s establishment.”
As is usually the case, some of the political and nautical points went over my head, but the joy of these books is in the characters and in the small incidents. O’Brian does well at making sure the essentials of plot are clear enough—the details are for a reread.
I hope I don’t let so long pass between books this time. I’m now close to halfway through, and I’m excited to see what happens next!