Captain Jack Aubrey, RN, arrives in the Dutch East Indies to find himself appointed to the command of the fastest and best-armed frigate in the Navy. He and his friend Stephen Maturin take passage for England in a despatch vessel. But the War of 1812 breaks out while they are en route. Bloody actions precipitate them both into new and unexpected scenes where Stephen's past activities as a secret agent return on him with a vengeance.
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The Fortune of War (1979) is the sixth novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin early 19th-century age of sail series, which so far coheres into a single composite novel depicting the friendship, careers, and romances of "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, captain in the British Navy, and Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon, secret agent, and internationally renowned natural philosopher. The novel begins not long after the fifth book, Desolation Island, concludes, the HMS Leopard limping into the Dutch East Indies "a pitiful show," the crew reduced by "jail fever" to a ragged skeleton and the battered ship lacking all fifty cannons and using a jury-rigged rudder. The first chapter brings readers up to speed by having Jack report on their recent voyage to his Admiral and Stephen report to his fellow naval intelligence man. We also learn that war with the US may break out at any moment and that Jack and Stephen will be sailing as passengers back to England where Jack will get a new ship to captain, the Acasta.
The friends are expecting smooth sailing home with plenty of time for reading, resting, and playing their violin and cello. Our suspicion that they may be too sanguine in their anticipation of an easy voyage proves accurate, for soon enough they are dealing with an American declaration of war, a calamitous fire, a crammed lifeboat, a ferocious battle, a serious wound, and an enforced stay in Boston.
Although in previous novels O'Brian does have Stephen do plenty of spy work, in this book the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings featuring British, French, and American agents nearly displaces naval action as the main story focus. O'Brian also develops the relationship between Stephen and his unattainable beloved Diana Villiers, last seen absconding to America with a handsome, rich, and philandering American businessman, now introducing the possibility--devastating to Stephen--that he might no longer love the formerly spirited but presently coarsened beauty. And Jack (unselfconscious, direct, warm-hearted, and at home on sea and at sea on land) and Stephen (ethical, philosophical, observant, secretive, and kind) are great characters to spend time with, and O'Brian effectively interweaves their complementary points of view as he tells his story.
This book has the added interest of the War of 1812, evoking its complicated political and cultural background. The Federalists hate President Madison and his fellow Republicans, whom they see as having started an unnecessary war devastating to trade, while the British government and naval intelligence act with foolish over-confidence and pride. Although they are enemies, many of the British and American sailors and officers know each other, whether because the British had defected into American ships or the Americans had been impressed into British ones, and they speak generally the same language.
There are some funny moments when Jack disapproves of American sailors spitting tobacco over the sides of their ship and dislikes the thin, tasteless American coffee ("strange people"), and Stephen learns that "Ugh" is not a greeting in the Huron language and that even in "free" Boston a black man is not welcome in a tavern. And the age of sail is changing, as Nelson's direct tactics are becoming outmoded, flintlock fuses are replacing slow matches on cannons, and the Americans are rumored to possess a steam ship, prompting a British officer to speculate that sailors will become "vile mechanics."
Regarding slavery, although there are moments when O'Brian subtly condemns it, Johnson preventing his female slaves from marrying fathering illegitimate children by them like the "parish bull," I did wonder why Stephen, who joined British naval intelligence as a spy in order to defeat Napoleon, "a vile tyrant," would not think and talk more about slavery and its impact on his vision of America than he does.
Despite much of the action occurring ashore, O'Brian does write his trademark lyrical descriptions of ships, sails, sun, sea: "He was by no means unmoved by the beauty of sail above sail, sail beyond sail, taut, rounded, and alive, nor by the huge curved shadows, and intricate geometry of line and brilliant surface."
And his vivid accounts of naval warfare:
"From that moment on all was shattering din, the guns firing as fast as they could load, one broadside running into another, dense smoke from both ships sweeping over the Shannon's deck, the whole air and the smoke in it quivering with the huge incessant concussions, with the orange stabs of flame jetting through the darkness--the bright sun quite veiled--the crackle of small-arms from the two opposed gangways and the tops, the high bark of the swivel-guns."
And he is up to his usual standards of witty insights into human nature and life.
--"There is good in everyone, even an American." --"There is always something in the misfortunes of others that does not displease us." --“Even honorable, humane men were capable of almost anything for unselfish motives.” --"Bless you, Jack, an inch of steel in the right place will do wonders. Man is a pitiably frail machine." --"We are all subject to the fortune of war."
Although some of his American voices, particularly his southern ones, sound a bit dodgy, Ric Jerrom does his usual excellent reading of the book, enhancing exciting scenes, giving Stephen a dash of Irish, making the common sailors coarsely savory, voicing women naturally, and generally being The Voice of O'Brian's Work.
Finally, despite a few things remaining unresolved at the somewhat abrupt end, and despite there being a bit more spy vs. spy and a bit less naval action than I'd have liked, this is another fine book in the Aubrey-Maturin saga, recommended for fans of British age-of-sail adventure (with a psychological bent), though it'd be best to start with the first book, Master and Commander.