The 12th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series opens with Jack not being quite himself, having been dismissed from the Royal Navy on false charges. On many counts, he’s lucky. In The Reverse of the Medal, his friends made sure he didn’t have to suffer public humiliation. And Stephen has purchased the recently decommissioned Surprise for Jack to captain as a letter of marque (essentially a private ship). But being a Navy man was a crucial part of Jack’s identity, and he hopes to find a way back in.
Captaining a private ship has some advantages. Men can’t be pressed into service, so everyone on the ship wants to be there. And Lucky Jack Aubrey is someone volunteers want to serve under, in hopes that they can benefit from his luck and get a share of valuable prizes. And the arrangement is successful. Jack is as capable a captain as ever, and he has reason to hope his good work will be rewarded with a return to the Navy.
The first part of this book was duller than some of the others in the series. I had a hard time getting interested in the missions themselves, although of course I wanted Jack to do well. As is often the case, the specific details of the encounters with enemy ships weren’t always easy to follow. (It’s why I often prefer the books set on land.) And there wasn’t a lot of the personal interaction that I enjoy from this series. There is an especially intense attack on a French ship in which Jack is injured. The operation to remove the bullet is one of the book’s more gripping scenes.
Another point of interest in the early part of the book is Stephen’s opium addiction. He comes up with an all-too-convenient argument about how medical men can be responsible about their doses, even given themselves an amount that would seem like a lot. All the while, he’s gradually being weaned of his addiction as his servant Padeen steals doses for himself and waters the remainder down with brandy. It’s heartening to watch Stephen recover without knowing what’s happening. But by the end of the book, his ignorance about the low doses becomes dangerous when he gets a fresh supply. And his new liking of coca leaves does not bode well for the future.
The last half of the book brings a return to land, and I found this much more enjoyable. At home in England, Jack is offered the reinstatement he so desires, but on terms he can’t bring himself to accept. A death in the family gives him a new status that may work to his advantage. For once, Jack doesn’t really bungle anything much in his time at home. I mean, you could say he bungled the deal to get back in the Navy, but I say he took a principled stand. If, as Stephen says later, it had been presented to him differently, he might have made another choice.
Stephen, meanwhile, must try and repair his marriage with Diana, and so he goes to Sweden to proclaim his faithfulness, despite rumors to the contrary. This part of the book was maybe a little too easy, but Stephen deserves some happiness. I’m just not convinced that the happiness will last. But I like that Diana is not made out to be a bad person, just a very independent one. It remains to be seen whether she’s too independent for a happy marriage with Stephen. Then again, maybe a marriage to a man so often at sea is the perfect thing! I’ll continue to be interested in seeing how their relationship evolves.