Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are ordered home by despatch vessel to bring the news of their latest victory to the government. But Maturin is a marked man for the havoc he has wrought in the French intelligence network in the New World, and the attentions of two privateers soon become menacing. The chase that follows through the fogs and shallows of the Grand Banks is as thrilling, as tense, and as unexpected in its culmination as anything Patrick O'Brian has written. Then, among other things, follows a shipwreck and a particularly sinister internment in the notorious Temple Prison in Paris. Once again, the tigerish and fascinating Diana Villiers redresses the balance in this man's world of seamanship and war.
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The Surgeon's Mate (1980) is the 7th novel in Patrick O'Brian's addicting series of age of sail novels about the lives, loves, and careers of the British navy captain Jack Aubrey and the naturalist-spy-ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. It takes place during the War of 1812 and begins with the HMS Shannon sailing into Halifax in Nova Scotia with its American prize frigate the Chesapeake, captured after the ferocious fifteen-minute battle that closed the sixth novel, The Fortune of War (1979). Although ecstatic about finally having a British naval victory over the Americans to celebrate, Jack is afflicted by a badly healing broken arm, the uncertain state of his financial affairs back home in England, and absent letters from his wife Sophie. Stephen is pleased to have escaped from Boston with a passel of helpful American intelligence documents, including names of American spies among the British, and with Diana Villiers, the woman he has loved for years (and the previous six books in the series), and who has finally agreed to marry him. However, despite the obvious benefits of marrying Stephen, including regaining her British citizenship, she is getting cold feet, and Stephen himself is having to deal with a kind of void where his passion and love for her once burned.
This book shares the strong points of the earlier entries in the series. First, without boring veteran readers O'Brian efficiently brings new readers up to speed, here by having Jack and Stephen report about their recent actions to their superiors and colleagues. Second, O'Brian evokes a believable, fully-realized historical world, that of the Napoleonic wars, with characters thinking, speaking, and acting the way one might expect them to think, speak, and act back then and there, rather than as 20th century people transported to the early 19th century. Third, he excels at making long periods of inaction compelling and then suddenly disrupting them with brief, intense scenes of suspenseful, never repetitive action of various types, in this book ranging from naval battles and storms to covert actions and interrogations. Finally, the deep friendship between the perfectly complementary odd couple, Jack and Stephen, is a pleasure to behold. Jack is huge, florid, loud, emotional, good natured, open; Stephen small, sallow, circumspect, intellectual, misanthropic, secretive. At sea on land, Jack is an instinctive and confident leader aboard a ship; adept ashore, Stephen is quite out of place, if not in the way, aboard a ship. Each calls the other "dear" and "brother," cares about the other's welfare, and thinks the other is somewhat prone to mistakes.
Meanwhile, the wealthy American slave-owning spy-master Johnson, Diana's ex-lover, does not sit idly by while Stephen returns to England with his woman and his intelligence papers, but hires American privateers to try to catch them. Stephen's desire for Catalan independence (he is half Catalan and half Irish) involves him in O'Brian's plot. With the sixth novel, this one completes a kind of dyptich relating to spy matters. The Surgeon's Mate demonstrates how complex international affairs were from the British point of view during the early 19th century: the war of the allies against Napoleon was in a critical stage when America suddenly declared war on England, forcing the British to divert crucial naval and other resources from the European theater to the American. It also takes the relationship between Stephen and Diana into a new phase.
Into all that, O'Brian introduces a fun new character, a handsome, young, Lithuanian military officer called Jagiello, expert in multiple languages, brilliant at chess, unfailingly cheerful, somewhat prone to pratfalls, the object of intense attraction to any woman who sees him (Jack can never quite understand what women see in Jagiello, who can't even shave yet, compared to more brawny and hirsute British officers). Jagiello, who knows even less about nautical matters than Stephen, permits O'Brian to use Stephen to tell us about lee dangers and club-hauling, while Stephen (still no maritime expert), permits O'Brian to use Jack to tell us how to use a clock to locate where a ship is east and west.
Stephen's bracing (somewhat bitter) insights into human nature continue to give pleasure:
-"We are fallible creatures, Jack, and adepts at self-deception." -"There is something in the misfortunes of others that does not altogether displease us." -"I know nothing of the law, except that when a plain man comes into contact with it, he is likely to suffer extremely in his purse and spirit, however sound the cause."
O'Brian writes witty and vivid descriptions of places and people: "Gothenburg, a melancholy town, most of it quite recently burnt, inhabited by tall spare melancholiacs dressed in grey wool and much given to drinking and self-murder (the river brought three suicides past the Ariel during her brief stay), but kind to strangers if not to themselves."
And authentic, vivid, and poetic descriptions of sailing ships: "They [a large convoy] threaded the long channel in the night, scarcely touching a sheet or a brace; and from the shore they looked like some prodigious constellation enormously rich in stars, that had strayed to the surface of the sea."
He just makes it so thrilling to imagine oneself on a sailing ship in the early 19th century: "The yards rose, the sheets were tallied aft, the billowing sails stood taut, and the Ariel, surging ahead, plucked her anchor from the ground."
Splendid audiobook reader Ric Jerrom continues to be the Voice of O'Brian (and Jack and Stephen) for me.
Fans of age of sail fiction, authentic and compelling historical fiction with complex and human characters and much thought about life, should like the Aubrey and Maturin books like this one--but should begin with the first, Master and Commander (1969).