Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML:
Third in the series of Aubreyâ??Maturin adventures, this book is set among the strange sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent and in the distant waters ploughed by the ships of the East India Company. Aubrey is on the defensive, pitting wits and seamanship against an enemy enjoying overwhelming local superiority. But somewhere in the Indian Ocean lies the prize that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams: the ships sent by Napoleon to attack the China Fleet.
Full of daring rescues, colorful characters, high seas adventure, and vivid historical detail, this novel will grab you from the start and never loosen its grip.
There's also a wonderfully vivid sense of place here, especially when that place is aboard ship. Sometimes, I swear, I could almost taste the salt water. And then there's the sly, dry sense of humor, which probably makes the whole thing worth reading all by itself. You wouldn't expect this sort of book to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it often is.
Among other events, this particular installment features a trip to India, some continuing complications in affairs of the heart, and, of course, the inevitable skirmish with the French. Although as far as I'm concerned, they could pretty much sail around aimlessly, and I'd probably still be interested.
(I am kind of hoping poor Stephen gets to catch a break in the next installment, though, after the multiple kinds of abuse he suffers in this one. Or is that too much to ask?)
As it happens, we get a pretty good idea as this novel opens, finding Jack alone in acting command of the crack frigate Lively, which he admires and enjoys only in principle -- likening it internally to a brother's officer's wife, elegant and chaste and living her life according to sound scientific principles. Not very sexy, but not a slovenly waste of wood and canvas, either. He is alone in command because Stephen, revealed last novel as a valued secret agent, is on assignment and, as it tuns out, in peril, because the new First Lord of the Admiralty blundered into mentioning him by name in a public meeting (Plamegate, anyone?), a remarkable thing that did not go unremarked by enemy agents!
So while in Post Captain both Jack and Stephen engaged in a ridiculous dual escape, in H.M.S. Surprise the former starts off the story enacting a rescue of the latter, who was captured on one of his spy missions, in deadly earnest. That it is from the very island where they met --Minorca, Port Mahon, since fallen into the hands of the Spanish who are, in 1804, allied with France (the French turned on them in 1808), makes it all the more poignant and interesting. It's a very broken and battered Stephen who joins the Surprise's crew, and his ordeal is far from over: no sooner is he aboard than he's itching to get off the ship again to go explore a rock in the middle of the sea, a rock teeming with bird and insect life the likes of which might well be nondescript, in the old fashioned phrase*, which, this is Patrick O'Brian, so everything gets an old fashioned phrase at some point.
And that's just the first act!
Really, I generally think that if one is, for some unfathomable reason, going to read just one Aubrey/Maturin novel it should probably be this one, because it packs pretty much everything we love about O'Brian's creations into one dense little book -- staggering geographical scope (England to Minorca to India to Africa to...!), slapstick escapes/rescues, hot naval battle action (this time with a fleet of merchant ships having to fight like military vessels, with Jack having to engage in hard core diplomacy as well as seat-of-his-pants strategizing to pull it off), charming/brutal scenes of shipboard life, and perils ashore in love and war. Especially in love. Poor Stephen. Poor Jack. But mostly, in this novel, poor Stephen, for Diana Villiers leads him quite a merry chase all over India and beyond; he even winds up fighting a duel over her.** And then there's Dil. Ah, Dil.
And hey, everybody, it's okay. I still have a heart. I know this because once again the story of Dil, the wise-beyond-her-years little girl in Bombay who adopts Stephen and more or less keeps him out of trouble during his wanderings there -- she considers him a sort of idiot saint who can probably fly if he chooses, but would definitely fly the wrong way if not smack into something and knock himself out -- still makes me tear up. I picture her as being played by Sarala Kariyawasam. Brilliantly. Except Sarala might have been too cute. Ah, me.
*Meaning "not yet described" rather than "not worth describing because it's so boring" as we tend to use the term nowadays.
**And getting wounded. And surgically removing a pistol ball from his own gut in a scene wonderfully depicted in the film adaptation of Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World but in the film his wound is gotten quite, quite differently. And much less tragically.
I haven't decided whether I like Patrick Tull or Simon Vance better as narrator. I feel the former does a slightly better job of characters; the latter does a better job of pace on the story. I'll continue to give them both a try.
The series, then â€“ to return to the subject of this review â€“ continues to improve, and HMS Surprise is the best installment so far â€“ it gets the balance between adventure and contemplation, between naval action and character description, between fighting and exploration just right, and even turns out to possess a well-wrought structure: While in the first two novels, Oâ€™Brian seemed satisfied to have his plot amble aimlessly wherever his whim took it, this time the novel is framed by two extended fighting sequences (both centered around Jack) at the beginning and the end (one on land, one on sea) while the middle part (mostly centered around Stephen) is given to exploration (something else Oâ€™Brian does exceptionally well and to which I will have to return in a later post), descriptions of life on sea and character development. Jackâ€™s and Stephenâ€™s affairs of the heart proceed in a nicely measured symmetry, constantly juxtaposing one with the other until, by the end of the novel, they find themselves at opposite ends of the happiness scale. After the rather amorphous preceding volumes it was really unexpected (Iâ€™m very tempted to say, it was a real surprise â€“ if that wasnâ€™t such a horrible, Aubrey-worthy pun) to find this one so perfectly poised, as if Oâ€™Brian just wanted to show that he was able to do it if he could be bothered.
But HMS Surprise is not just the structurally most refined but also the novel with by far the greatest emotional impact so far â€“ not just because the narrative continues to follow the love affairs of our protagonists begun in Post Captain, but chiefly due to a certain episode Stephen encounters (about which I will not go into any detail to avoid spoilers) which ends in a devastating tragedy. The episode I am alluding to here is utterly heartbreaking, and it is here that the series first shows the emotional depths it is capable of plumbing. I suspect, however, that it will not have been the last time, now that Patrick Oâ€™Brian has shown here (and in some other events, also involving Stephen â€“ who really has a very bad time in this novel) that he is not afraid of putting his protagonists through the wringer.
The novel ends on a note which a certain sense of closure to events, and with that and the careful symmetry in its structure, I couldnâ€™t help but think that HMS Surprise might actually have been a good point to end the series as a trilogy. Thankfully, Oâ€™Brian didnâ€™t but went on to add many, many more volumes which Iâ€™m quite excited about reading.
I will again avoid spoiling the work for anyone who hasn't read it by describing particular details. The serial nature of the work makes it especially important to encounter the events in sequence. Instead, I will focus on the qualities of the writing that I find particularly appealing.
I won't presume to be able to do better justice to the period authenticity or O'Brien's ability to portray the seagoing life, many other reviewers have commented on this, included the afterward in the particular edition of "Surprise" I picked up, which was written by Charles Heston himself. (As an aside, I wonder about his other reading tastes, in particular whether he read "I am Legend" before being presented with the script of and agreeing to portray the lead role in "Omega Man").
What I admire so much about the series is O'Brien's ability to start with truly excellent characters and to continually give us a more intimate understanding of their lives, their growth, their interactions with each other. He also has a fine sense of detail, narrative, pacing, and is on the whole a great writer in every sense.
Reading this work, I can't help but think of "Moby Dick", "Middle Passage", and any number of sea-going works (sadly few of which I've read). The Aubrey-Maturin series is written for a relatively modern ear, making it easier to parse than Melville. However, far from diluting the spirit of the age he describes, O'Brien's writing is believably rooted in the time and culture he describes, and does not engage in obvious revisionism by inserting overly modern characters and situations.
I look forward to continuing to read the series, and would love to hear from others who enjoy the series.
â€śOn the analogy of dogs, or even of horses, the rich should stand nine foot high and the poor run about under the table. This does not occur: yet the absence of improvement never stops men desiring the company of beautiful women.â€ť (p. 252)
The secondary characters were once again quickly and thoughtfully drawn, and there was a great mix of humour and seriousness, action and thought. Delightful.
There really is so much going on historically it's
I would still advise that the books be taken in occasional doses rather than a steady stream - I intend to enjoy O'Brian's company in annual visits for many years to come. I just have to try to trick my mind into comparing him to others rather than himself to appreciate what I'm getting.
Even after reading the series, this is and remains my favorite Aubrey-Maturin book. It contains both highs and lows, some of the funniest moments, animal misadventures, and truly daring battles, but also the personal depth and emotion which defines this series and makes it greater than simply 'naval fiction'.
Aubrey believes that he will be made wealthy from the spoils of his raid on a Spanish fleet returning with gold from South America but when he finds out that
O'Brian continues to enhance the Aubrey/Maturin relationship and their somewhat troubled love life and their are some touchingly comedic moments. He also gives a realistic view of life on a wooden sailing ship during the Napoleonic Wars in particular as they battle against the Roaring Forties. However, a lot of the action like Aubrey's arrest and Maturin's torture, happens off stage whereas the battle against Linois's group is fearsome but sadly all to brief. On the plus side Aubrey's love Sophia on makes a couple of short appearances.
I certainly intend to continue with this series but I'm not convinced that will become a real devotee of it.
This one is particularly notable for the titular frigate,
Notes on rereading: this book is more Maturin's book than Aubrey's, although the massive sea action in the middle does give him his time in the limelight. Also, I think it's even harder to put down than the average Aubrey-Maturin volume. Out of the frying pan into the fire into the fleet action...
Jerrom is a skilled reader and helps to bring the story to life.
Note that there are separate audiobooks read by Patrick Tull. I recommend Ric Jerrom over Patrick Tull as a reader.
I recommend the separate audiobooks read by Ric Jerrom over Patrick Tull as a reader.
Simon Vance does an excellent narration.