My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Boney has escaped his captivity on Elba and is threatening Europe once again. And once again, the British Navy and one of its most illustrious captains, now Commodore Jack Aubrey, are called upon to meet the challenge.
Aubrey and his squadron of ships head to Gibraltar to begin their new campaign. As they are approaching the Rock, two old salts watch and discuss Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin and their exploits. It is from their discussion that we learn of a tragedy that has befallen the pair. A coach carrying Stephen's wife, Diana, and Aubrey's mother-in-law as well as various household members and servants has gone off the road and into a creek. Everyone except the groom was drowned.
Fortunately, the faithful Padeen and Mrs. Oakes were not aboard the coach and they now remain at home caring for Stephen's young daughter, Brigid. Stephen is deep in mourning and yet Patrick O'Brian doesn't really make much of that - perhaps not as much as he might have. Surely the loss of the love of his life must have had more of an effect on Maturin's actions than simply inspiring him to write some sad music!
At any rate, Maturin once again throws himself into the intelligence game, working to get the information that will help to thwart Bonaparte one more time.
Napoleon sets out to pursue his enemies across the continent, hoping to corner the British and Prussians before their Russian and Austrian allies arrive to help. His plan is to lead his French armies to triumph at Waterloo.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans, a horde of Muslim mercenaries is gathering. They are sympathetic to Napoleon because he had allegedly converted to Islam during the time of his Egyptian campaign. Their role is to thrust northward into Europe and block the Russians and Austrians from being able to aid the English and Prussians. However, before they will move, they await a shipment of gold from one of their sheiks that is on its way by camel caravan to the coast of North Africa. Aubrey and Maturin are sent to intercept that gold shipment and stop it from reaching its intended recipient.
My favorite parts of these books, aside from the humor, are those which take Stephen on his intelligence-gathering trips into the hinterlands, during which he gets to do his Nature observations and collections, especially his bird-watching. It is always a delight to read these sections, and there is ample time given to them in this book.
Much of the book, though, is given over to the kind of naval jargon which is such a delight to O'Brian's more devoted naval history readers. I'm more of a relationship reader and I freely admit that I often gloss over these sections.
Aubrey makes his plans to intercept the corsair craft that will be carrying the gold and the encounter has the outcome that would be fully expected by anyone who has followed the Aubrey adventures through (now) 19 books. There are some bumps along the way, the result of Ministry politics, but, as most often happens, Aubrey comes through it all smelling like a rose.
One interesting aside is Maturin's stroll through a market that includes selling of slaves. He happens upon two Irish children that had been captured by the corsairs and are being sold. Of course, he buys them and takes them on board ship, not the first time he has saved children, and he is at his most sympathetic in his interactions with them. He makes plans to send them back to their village in Ireland as soon as he can find a reliable ship headed there.
During all of these activities, word comes of the battle at Waterloo in which Wellington has finally vanquished Bonaparte. So, where does that leave Aubrey and Maturin? One more book to go. I hope to learn their fate before the end of the year.
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