My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Patrick O'Brian's long-running naval history series takes place mostly, and naturally, on board ships at sea, but ships must occasionally touch shore and their captains and crew must live, at least for a time, on land. Readers who have followed this series throughout its development know that time ashore invariably means disaster for Jack Aubrey. The sea is his natural habitat and when he steps ashore he becomes, almost literally, like a fish out of water.
The action of The Yellow Admiral takes place mostly on land and Aubrey is gasping for air and a way to survive professionally and in his personal life throughout.
This book follows The Commodore which saw the successful conclusion to the long, long voyage of Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in the Pacific. We find Aubrey with substantial land holdings but hardly a penny to his name.
Impoverishment is not a new and unknown country for him; he's been there before many times. But now his land holdings make him a voting member of Parliament, and, unfortunately, as far as the Admiralty is concerned, he persists in voting the wrong way.
Moreover, he engages in a feud with his neighbor, who has strong ties to the Admiralty. The neighbor wants to enclose the common land between their two estates, but Jack is implacably against enclosure. This makes him popular with the common people in his district but distinctly unpopular with the elites.
More trouble comes when Jack is sent to participate in a blockade of Brest. In stormy waters there, he captures a French privateer but is accused of missing a signal and deserting a post to do so.
While he is away on blockade, his mother-in-law comes to stay at his home with his wife, Sophie. She rummages around in Jack's papers and finds letters which seem to incontrovertibly expose his adultery. Of course, she gleefully shows them to Sophie who is devastated and ready to "take advice" from a solicitor.
Then the worst possible thing in Aubrey's world happens: Peace breaks out in 1814. Napoleon is sent to Elba and the British navy stands down. No more chance for glory. Jack fears that his naval career will end with a whimper rather than a bang. He faces the ignominious prospect of being "yellowed," meaning that he would be nominally promoted to the rank of admiral but without any squadron to command.
Riding to his rescue once again is his particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
Maturin has been happily reunited with his beloved Diana, and their daughter, Brigid, once feared to be developmentally challenged, has blossomed under the care of Maturin's loblolly boy, Padeen, and his friend, Clarissa Oakes. She has become an active chatterbox of a child, a delight to her parents. Stephen's fortune has been restored and, in fact, everything seems to be coming up Maturin.
Stephen returns from an intelligence mission in France where he made contact with some of the people he had met in South America when he was trying to foment a revolution in Peru. His contacts are Chilean and they are interested in securing their country's independence from Spain. To accomplish this, they require a navy and the help of English officers.
If Jack agrees to aid them, it will mean taking his name off the List, the sacred Admiralty document that determines the progress of a naval man's career. He is at first reluctant to accept the assignment but on the assurance that he can be restored to the List with no loss of rank if England goes to war again or upon the completion of his employment by Chile, he agrees to the terms.
It's all signed, sealed, and delivered. Aubrey takes the Surprise, their refurbished privateer, and heads out to Chile with Stephen and with both of their families aboard. The families are to go as far as Madeira for a vacation there and the Surprise will continue on its mission.
But while in Madeira, Aubrey receives a letter from the Admiral, apologizing for a perceived slight, and calling him back to duty. Napoleon has escaped Elba!
These books have been a joy to read throughout, and, as we get near the end of the series, they just seem to get better. I started the series with some trepidation because of the authentic technical naval vocabulary the author employs in telling his stories, but I soon learned to allow that vocabulary (that I was not really interested in learning) to simply wash over me and become a kind of background noise that did lend authenticity but did not distract from the development of the characters and their relationships which is the real meat of the stories.
Also, the characters are mostly male and that might seem to make them difficult to relate to for someone of my sex. But, in fact, their gender doesn't matter. They are simply fully realized human beings and I love the time that I spend with them.
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