Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Letter of Marque (Aubrey/Maturin, #12)The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started reading this series a little over two years ago and have been slowly working my way through it since. Time to check in on Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin once again.

We left these two in a rather sad state of affairs in the last book, The Reverse of the Medal. Aubrey's long and glorious naval career was in tatters, after his enemies duped him and were able to have him charged with manipulating the stock market. Anyone who knows Aubrey knows he is too much of a simpleton about finances to be able to manipulate the market, but that didn't prevent him from being convicted, having his name struck off the list of naval captains, and, humiliatingly, sentenced to the stocks. We saw him locked into the stocks with his enemies set to take advantage of his helpless position by throwing garbage at him. But his shipmates, both present and past, came to his rescue, surrounded the stock and prevented anyone from harming him.

Meanwhile, Maturin, made newly wealthy by a bequest, bought the Surprise, Aubrey's beloved frigate, fitted it out as a privateer and gave Aubrey command of it. In this book, we see their first adventures on the sea in their new circumstances aboard their private man-of-war.

Many of their shipmates from the past have followed them into private service, so the characters here are mostly familiar to longtime readers of the series. And it turns out that the "luck" of Jack Aubrey, which is really a matter of clever strategy and always angling to have the weather gage, continues to hold, even when he isn't wearing a naval uniform. Soon, the privateers of the Surprise are raking in prizes hand over fist. Happily, Aubrey's financial worries seem finally to have been eased.

He would give it all up, though, to have his naval career restored and much of the action of this book is aimed at that goal.

At the same time, Stephen's worry is a more personal one. His wife, Diana, the only woman he has truly loved, has absconded to Sweden because she believes that Stephen has betrayed her with a redhead while sailing around the Mediterranean. His enemies have made sure to report those tales to her. It isn't true, of course. He was merely pursuing his second career as a British intelligence office when he was squiring the redhead around. But how will he ever convince Diana of that?    

Perhaps it will not be giving too much away to say that this book ends happily. In fact, I think it is probably the sunniest book in the series so far. At the end, we find both of our heroes as content as we have ever seen them, proof that good things come to those who persevere and wait. At least in fiction.

Patrick O'Brian was an amazingly talented writer of historical naval fiction. While I am obviously not the best judge of the accuracy of all the minutiae of the British navy in the Nelsonic period, it certainly rings true, and much more knowledgable critics than I have attested to the truthful depiction of the life of sailors in the navy at that time.

O'Brian had a way of bringing to the reader the details of life on board ship in all of its repetition, boredom, beauty, savagery, humor, boldness, and dignity. He makes these characters live for us and makes us care about them. There is scarcely higher praise one can offer a writer.


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