Thursday, July 16, 2009

Down to the Sea in Ships

Patrick O'Brian; The Letter of Marque (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1988; cover by Geoff Hunt).

Following upon the emotional high point of the series (at least to me), The Letter of Marque opens with Captain Aubrey in an entirely different, yet similar, world to which he is used. His beloved Surprise is retired out of the service, and is owned by his friend Stephen Maturin. Captain Aubrey is no longer part of his beloved Royal Navy, but has been hired to command the Surprise as a private man-of-war with a letter of marque. And Stephen Maturin, having come into a fortune from his godfather, has also gotten the Surprise and its crew to act in interfering with the designs of the French upon South America. Much else happens in the course of the book; for example, in one of O'Brian's mirroring techniques, Maturins surgical assistant, Padeen, becomes addicted to the alcoholic tincture of laudanum just as Stephen himself is. By books end, Aubrey has restored his fortune (and gone beyond it), been given a seat in Parliament and is well on the way to being returned to his position (with accumulated seniority) in the Royal Navy.

Multi-book themes and threads continue with this volume. Spies and counter-spies act. Domestic life goes on. The ongoing relationships of Jack and Sophie, Stephen and Diana grow and change. And there is the sea, the eternal sea.

Patrick O'Brian; The Thirteen Gun Salute (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1989; cover by Geoff Hunt).

In The Thirteen Gun Salute, the action takes up almost immediately after the end of the previous book. The mission of the Surprise to South America is scuttled and changed to bring a negotiating party to the fictional state of Pulo Prabang. Not only is a French mission working to sway the Sultan to join with the French, but Stephen Maturin's old enemies, Ledward and Wray are working for the French. Jack Aubrey is restored to the Navy lists and given the H.M.S. Diane to carry the British retinue to the negotiations.

The negotiations eventually go the way of the British and Ledward and Wray are undone. However, there seem to be traitors in the British government even higher than they. Affairs are further complicated by the increasingly erratic behavior of the chief British negotiator, and the ship is eventually stuck on a reef and then sunk during a typhoon.

Some excellent passages can be found in here when Stephen goes off a naturalizing; beautiful long descriptions of a nature sanctuary in a hidden valley of a mountain chain. And, we have the involved conversations, music, food, companionship, action, plots and counter-plots. And the eternal, eternal sea.

Patrick O'Brian; The Nutmeg of Consolation (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1993; ISBN ; cover by Geoff Hunt).

As with the previous volume, The Nutmeg of Consolation opens immediately after the close of The Thirteen Gun Salute. The crew escapes from their deserted island after some battles and makes their way back to their home base at the start of the negotiations in the previous book. Stephen learns that he is financially ruined, but that he will be a father. Jack is given a small ship in which to try and cut off the remains of the French mission to Pulo Prabang and to make his rendezvous with Tom Pullings and the beloved Surprise. They make their way to Australia, rescuing two children whose entire village was wiped out by the smallpox; and end up in New South Wales. While jokes abound about Australia having been a penal colony, O'Brian's descriptions of life there are particularly hellish. Stephen and his surgeon's mate, the Reverend Mr. Martin, travel in the countryside to observe nature. Stephen's former assistant, Padeen, is found (he was sentenced there after his addiction brought him to crime). Stephen is almost killed by the nature he wishes to observe, but in the course of that injury, Padeen escapes and is restored to his crewmates.

The contrast of hell on earth in the colony of New South Wales and heaven on earth among the wildlife of that same land along make the book worth reading.

Patrick O'Brian; The Truelove (a.k.a., Clarissa Oakes) (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1993; ISBN ; cover by Geoff Hunt).

Again, we start off where the action of the previous volume finished. The Surprise is underway, having left the colony of New South Wales, when it is discovered that a stowaway, and worse, a woman, is aboard. It is learned that one of the midshipmen smuggled the woman, a convict, Clarissa Harvill (later married to the midshipman, to become the Clarissa Oakes of the alternate title).

Major plot points and twists involve jealousy over Clarissa and fractions in the ship's company; rescued whalers (the "Truelove" of the other title version); war on a Pacific island; and, linking into the long strand of several books, the identity of one of the players in intelligence working against the British.

As with the rest of the books in this string, this was a re-read. With my first reading, I did not much care for the book; Clarissa seemed yet another mirror of Stephen's love interest, Diana Villers (just as Louisa Wogan was a mirror of her in Desolation Island). This reading brought what proved to be a complex character background more into focus and much of her (Clarissa's) behavior became clearer. So, the book moved from being one of my lesser favorites in a favorite series, to being solidly in the midst of this long extended sequence.

Patrick O'Brian; The Wine Dark Sea (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1994; cover by Geoff Hunt).

With this volume, Stephen finally tries to bring forth the plot against Spain that was initiated several volumes previously, only to be undone, after a long journey, by a strange French idealist they had picked up privateering (without a letter of marque...thus being a pirate). The Surprise goes privateering itself and does pretty good until trying for one last trio of ships and encountering an American heavy frigate. There is one long passage where Stephen gets to go a botanizing, after his plot is undone. Lots of encounters with snow, ice, icebergs, rough seas and more, until an encounter with an old friend puts things to right. A casual line indicates that Clarissa Oakes is a widow...but it is dropped so casually, and without follow-up, you are left wondering what happened.

Patrick O'Brian; The Commodore (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1995; cover by Geoff Hunt).

Captain Aubrey is given the command of a squadron and is allowed to hoist the broad pendant of a Commodore (and wear the uniform of a Rear Admiral). His official mission is to disrupt the slave trade off of Africa; his hidden mission to to disrupt the plans of that vile scrub in France to land troops in Ireland. Stephen must foil the plans of his aunt-in-law (Jack's mother-in-law) to interfere in the raising of his daughter, but then must get his surgical assistant and Clarissa Oakes away from England due to the hidden, and increasingly not-so-hidden actions of the one remaining French agent (against whom no open action can be taken).

One part of the book revolves around the actions of the squadron off of Africa; particularly moving is Jack and Stephen's first boarding of a slaver. Another part revolves around Stephen's "botanizing", his catching of the "yellow jack" and his close encounter with death. The book concludes with the squadrons actions against the French invasion (less an invasion, than a attempted landing of arms and assistance) of Ireland and an unexpected reunion.

Patrick O'Brian; The Yellow Admiral (W.W. Norton & Co.; 1997; cover by Geoff Hunt).

This was a pretty depressing entry in The Canon, overall. It opens with both Jack and Stephen having lost all their fortunes (Jack was being sued for taking slave ships; Stephen had lost his fortune in Spain while on travels). Jack is assigned to blockade duty and while he starts to regain his fortune, he is serving under an admiral who hates him due to some recent political activity. He is brought even lower when his past catches up to him when his beloved wife learns of some of his wanderings years before. Peace is declared, briefly, as Jack tries to save his chances of becoming a admiral himself by agreeing to a "private" expedition to South America. Napoleon escapes and war breaks out again.

As should be clear from my comments here, and for other volumes, highly recommended.

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