My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Patrick O'Brian seemed to get better as a writer as this series wound down toward its end. This entry, number seventeen in the series, has actually been my favorite so far. Possibly that is because much of the action takes place on land and I didn't have to worry about keeping track of naval battles. Also, even more than is usually the case, it concentrated on exploring relationships and human interactions. Moreover, the author kept things moving and kept my complete interest throughout. Yes, I would definitely say that, for me, this is the high mark in the series to this point.
At the beginning of this story, we find Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin headed home after their years-long adventures in the South Sea. Both are looking forward to home and family once again, but before Stephen can actually head home from port, he receives an urgent message to go to London and meet with Joseph Blaine, the head of the intelligence service. He does so and learns there has been a breach of security and his position has been exposed. He must tread carefully.
He continues home, eager to meet his daughter Brigid who was born during his long, long voyage, but when he gets there, he finds a heartbreaking situation. Brigid is a beautiful child but she has a mental disability, apparently something like autism, and seems unable to communicate. Maturin's wife, Diana, in despair over the daughter's situation, had taken to drinking too much and had finally run away, leaving the child in the care of Clarissa Oakes whom we met on a previous voyage. No one knows where Diana is.
Meanwhile, Jack Aubrey arrives home to find that his family had gone on a visit. He rides out to find them and is thrown by his horse and hits his head on a rock. Nevertheless, his head may be the least vulnerable part of his anatomy and his wife and children arrive home to care for him, a happy reunion all around.
However, Jack's applecart is totally upset when his wife Sophie goes to dinner with Clarissa Oakes and finds her wearing a dress made from the same silk as the one she is wearing! The silk for the dress was a gift from Jack so she jumps to the worst possible conclusion. (Actually, Clarissa had married one of Jack's men while on that aforementioned long voyage and he had given her the silk for her wedding dress.) Things get very chilly at home.
Stephen's assistant/servant Pegeen forges a unique relationship with the autistic daughter. He draws her out of her shell and she does begin to communicate, first in Irish, then in English. Stephen is delighted.
Jack receives confirmation that he has been made a commodore and has been given command of a fleet that is being sent to the west coast of Africa to interdict the despicable trade in human beings there. He is to harry and destroy as much of the slave trade as possible and then head north to his ultimate mission which is to stop the French in their planned invasion of Ireland
To accomplish all of this will call upon the best skills of both Aubrey and Maturin. Aubrey must learn to lead and discipline captains and he finds it isn't easy. Among the captains under his command is one who believes flogging his men is the answer to every problem. Jack abhors a flogger! Another captain is a practicing homosexual (in a Royal Navy that considers sodomy a hanging offense) who shows favoritism to certain of his men. This has created resentment between those in the inner circle and those outside it. Both ships are on the edge of mutiny.
Stephen must keep his intelligence contacts intact, while at the same time battling disease among freed slaves as well as naval personnel.
The plot of The Commodore is beautifully crafted and rendered. Many scenes in the book simply sparkle and crackle with wit and meaning. O'Brian is able, even with very brief scenes of only a few sentences, to convey so much significance and render his multi-dimensional characters with such realism that they seem to stand before the reader to deliver their lines. It is, in short, a marvelous read!
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