My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After several years of returning to this series periodically, I'm now in the home stretch of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin tales. This is the sixteenth entry and the quality has not declined at all. In fact, The Wine-Dark Sea was one of the more interesting reads in this latter part of the long-running series.
We begin with Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon and British intelligence agent Stephen Maturin aboard their privateer, the Surprise in the southern Pacific. They are pursuing an American privateer through the Great South Sea when things start to get weird. The sea turns a purple-red color and Aubrey notes that the sea "twitches" periodically. Even so experienced a seaman as Aubrey has never seen anything like it.
In the midst of the chase, the sea suddenly explodes about them, hurling debris into the air. It is an undersea volcano, and the rocks and other debris that are being sent into the air rain down on both ships, damaging them, injuring and killing sailors, and filling the sea with dead animals. When the explosions finally cease, Aubrey sees a new cone-shaped island having been formed by the volcano's eruption.
They are able to take the American privateer as a prize and they spend time repairing both ships as best they can. Then they continue on their way to Peru, where Maturin, in his guise as intelligence agent, will be attempting to foment a revolution to overthrow the current government.
His efforts meet with initial success, but then he is betrayed by a man who was on the American privateer (possibly its owner) and who had escaped into Lima. His betrayal puts Stephen in peril. Forewarned, he is able to flee, with the aid of friends who are descendants of the Incas, through the high, frozen wastes of the Andes, having sent word to Aubrey by Aubrey's illegitimate black son, Sam, who is a priest in Peru, that he will try to meet the Surprise in Valparaiso on the last day of the next month.
Actually, my favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of the volcanic eruption and its aftermath and of Stephen's time in Peru and the trip through the Andes. The description of the flora, fauna, geology, archaeology, and weather of the Andes was particularly fascinating to me. I may not be able to tell a studdingsail from a mizzenmast, but I can easily imagine the flight of an Andean Condor or the differences between guanacos, llamas, and vicunas, or the bromeliads of the high mountains, and the cleverness of the Incan engineers who made the roads through those mountains and designed the "Inca chair" which carried Stephen on the last part of his journey after he lost two toes to frostbite.
Even when Maturin makes his rendezvous with the Surprise and is reunited with his friends, the adventure is far from over. They will endure a breathtaking chase with American ships through stormy seas and icebergs south of Cape Horn, when the Surprise, hoping to capture more American prizes, suddenly finds itself outgunned and outmanned and must run for its life.
Having survived that test by the skin of their teeth, losing masts and sails and their rudder(!) in the process, they finally encounter aid in the form of a British ship captained by an old friend, and, thus, are able to say that they are truly "homeward bound" after their years-long voyage.
This book made me even more eager to read the last few entries in the series. I hope to finish it by the end of this year.
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