Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Fortune of War by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Fortune of War, sixth entry in Patrick O'Brian's historical tales of the seafaring adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, was first published in 1978, but the writing seems so fresh that it might have been published yesterday.

The two have just survived their adventure among the ice floes of the Antarctic and their stop on Desolation Island. Now, they arrive in the Dutch East Indies to find that Jack has been appointed to command the fastest and best-armed frigate in the Royal Navy, but he must get to England in order to receive his command. 

He and Maturin, along with several of his officers and midshipmen who have been with them throughout their adventures, take passage on a dispatch vessel, but before they can reach their destination, a combination of accidents causes that ship to be burned and all on board are cast into the sea.

Jack and Stephen are picked up by the Java which heads north along the eastern coast of the Americas. They learn, to their dismay, that, in addition to fighting Napoleon and the French, England is now also at war with the United States. What we refer to as the War of 1812 has broken out.

Soon enough, the two friends find themselves in the midst of that war when the Java encounters the U.S.S. Constitution. Not to reveal too much of the plot here, but Stephen and Jack wind up as prisoners of war, transported to Boston, where they get their first-hand experience of America and where Stephen once again encounters the love of his life, Diana Villiers, with unforeseen consequences for all.

As a member of the British Intelligence Service caught in the territory of a country with whom England is at war, Maturin's position is precarious. Moreover, Aubrey has been injured, and the two of them wait anxiously for an exchange of prisoners that will get them back in British hands.

The great selling point of this series, the reason the books remain so popular with so many people, I think, has to do with the remarkable relationship between Maturin and Aubrey, and, not a little, with the sardonic humor with which O'Brian writes. 

This story, in particular, was rich in puns and plays on words. At one point in the narrative, when two weevils crawl out of bread that Aubrey and Maturin are eating, Aubrey asks his friend which of the two he would choose. Maturin, the naturalist, replies that they are both of the same species, but one is slightly bigger, so he will take that one. Aubrey laughs uproariously and tells him he must remember to "always choose the lesser of two weevils." Reading this very late at night produced an uncontrolled belly laugh in this reader.

On another occasion, while they are prisoners in America, Stephen learns that the Americans may be wrongly focusing on Aubrey as the intelligence agent. He explains this to Jack and gives him some advice on how to act and then says, to comfort him:
"But do not be concerned; as I say, it will soon blow over."

"Oh," said Jack, laughing heartily for the first time since their captivity, "I am concerned. If they suspect me of intelligence, I am sure it will soon blow over, ha, ha, ha!"

"Well," said Stephen, smiling, "you are not above playing on words, I find. So good night to you, now; I am going to turn in early, because I too wish to be intelligent tomorrow."
That snippet of conversation reveals a bit of the essence of the relationship between these characters and what makes them so attractive to me as a reader. 

As always, there is enough naval jargon and lore here to satisfy the most avid fan of such writing. As for me, I admit that I glide right over a lot of that in order to get to the meat of the conversations which are such a delight to me. 

But I find that, truly, it is not necessary to be an expert on naval history or even particularly well-informed on naval history in order to get the gist of the action and to understand the flow of the narrative. I think the books work for all levels of readers of naval histories - of which I am probably the lowest rank.

The ending of this book left me wanting more, wanting to know what happens next. I don't think it will be very long before I pick up the next book in the series to find out where the adventures of Maturin and Aubrey will take them.

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