H. M. S. Surprise (Aubrey / Maturin)

by Patrick O'Brian

Paperback, 1991



Call number




W. W. Norton & Company (1991), Edition: Illustrated, 379 pages


Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML:

Third in the series of Aubrey??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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
Book number three in O'Brian's Napoleonic-era series featuring ship's captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and shipmate Dr. Stephen Maturin. Reading these books is always a bit of an odd experience for me, because, I have to admit, there are inevitably large-ish stretches where I have almost no idea
Show More
what is going on, as I have no fluency whatsoever in Old Timey Nautical Speak. Which you'd think would be a big barrier to enjoyment, and yet I found this book, like Post Captain before it, strangely delightful. Much of that is because, whatever I may or may not understand, the characters always shine through, and I feel tremendous affection for them. Especially for Maturin, whose eccentricities and enthusiasms are utterly adorable, even if he can be a stubborn idiot about some things. And the relationship between the two is just heart-warming. It's difficult to imagine two more utterly different people, but despite all obstacles, their attachment to each other is steadfast and endearing.

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?)
Show Less
LibraryThing member KateSherrod
It's interesting, isn't it, that these novels appear to have been marketed originally as "Jack Aubrey novels" (see first edition cover art to the left). But where, oh where, would Jack Aubrey be without Don Esteban Maturin y Domanova, better known as good old Dr. Stephen Maturin, Spock to Aubrey's
Show More
Kirk if ever there was one.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member TadAD
Another excellent volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series; I liked it even better than the first two. There's really not much to say—if you're this far in, you know what to expect. About the only difference in this story from the previous is that Maturin is the trial to his friends this time, instead
Show More
of Jack.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Larou
The title is already an indication of it: after Patrick O’Brian went all Jane Austen on his readers in Post Captain, this third volume of his Aubrey-Maturin series returns to mostly naval matters. But even as it shifts focus back to the sea retains the human and social dimension that the previous
Show More
novel introduced to the series, giving the two main characters James Aubrey and Stephen Maturin even more depth, and slowly turning them into what might very well be some of the most deeply realized characters in fiction this side of Ulysses (and, as a brief, totally-besides-the-point aside, nobody, but really nobody, not even Shakespeare does characters like James Joyce).

The series, then – to return to the subject of this review – continues to improve, and HMS Surprise is the best installment so far – 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, O’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 O’Brian does exceptionally well and to which I will have to return in a later post), descriptions of life on sea and character development. Jack’s and Stephen’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 (I’m very tempted to say, it was a real surprise – if that wasn’t such a horrible, Aubrey-worthy pun) to find this one so perfectly poised, as if O’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 – 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 O’Brian has shown here (and in some other events, also involving Stephen – 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 couldn’t help but think that HMS Surprise might actually have been a good point to end the series as a trilogy. Thankfully, O’Brian didn’t but went on to add many, many more volumes which I’m quite excited about reading.
Show Less
LibraryThing member D.C.Alexander
My favorite of the Aubrey-Maturin "Master and Commander" series. In all honesty, I never thought these books would grab me, as I'd never been particularly interested in tall ships or the involved period of history (era of the Napoleonic wars). But these books really got to me. The characters are so
Show More
well developed (especially if you start with book 1 of the series). The descriptions are wonderful. O'Brian really puts you on the gun deck. Puts you in the Mediterranean. Puts you in the Galapagos. You can taste the plum duff and the grog. You can feel the sea air blowing your hair back. I love these stories. And H.M.S. Surprise is, so far (I'm on book 12), my favorite.
Show Less
LibraryThing member elenchus
In which fortunes reverse once the Admiralty denies Aubrey's and Maturin's prize claim for the Lively's taking of a Spanish gold shipment, leading to Aubrey's command of the Surprise as a sort of consolation. Maturin's health is shaky but he is determined to go along, driven by a naturalist's
Show More
enthusiasm as well as a mission for Sir Joseph. Orders require they bring a royal governor to Kampong, and so Surprise sails round the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean.
Show Less
LibraryThing member duhrer
My friend Sean Boles and another online friend with whom I play chess got me interested in Patrick O'Brien's series of novels involving the characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Although I have to admit that I don't consume the Aubrey-Maturin novels as regularly or with the same gusto as
Show More
other books and authors I follow, I enjoyed "Surprise" quite a bit, just as I enjoyed the previous two in the series ("Master and Command", and "Post-Captain").

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Othemts
I’m swiftly losing interest in the Aubrey/Maturin books. My mind wanders as they sail over the seas and I realize that I did not comprehend much of what I read over the previous several pages. There are still lots of interesting parts of adventure and naval life, but are few and far between. I
Show More
get the feeling that the series of 17 books could be condensed nicely into just a handful of books. Alas, I suspect I will not reach book number 10.

“On 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.” (p. 252)
Show Less
LibraryThing member redfiona
Great, rollicking read, and I apologise to anyone in Leicester that I confused while reading it as I walked. An absolute page-turner gem of a book, filled with more vim than Post Captain, but explaining that book's occasional languors as being part of the set up, because we needed to know Sophie
Show More
for Jack's motivation in this, and we needed to meet Diana Villiers in order for Stephen's actions to make sense.

The secondary characters were once again quickly and thoughtfully drawn, and there was a great mix of humour and seriousness, action and thought. Delightful.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mazeway
These just keep getting better. And funnier. While by no means a comic book, there are many moments of genuine hilarity. I just love these books.
LibraryThing member kcslade
Another great Capt. Aubrey, Dr. Maturin novel.
LibraryThing member iayork
Impressive weaving of professional and private lives in breathing historical context: O'Brian manages to keep to his high standard, although with my expectations so high I'm not as able to relish the joy of first discovering Aubrey and Maturin.

There really is so much going on historically it's
Show More
amazing that the detail doesn't swamp the story. The personal and professional lives of our two heroes really establish them as three dimensional people, but men so clearly of their time. Upon reflection, it's impressive that we've got a sense of progression in the series, but are also carried along by episodes that could stand alone: the midnight rescue of a spy; sea battles in exotic places; the gripping duel to mention just a few.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
There is plenty of action in this third installment-sea battles, rescues, duels, deaths... How much I like Jack! He's staightforward, loyal, and courageous. And how much Stephen suffers in this novel. I have to hope for better fortune in the next book.
LibraryThing member ASBiskey
I really enjoy Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I have read and enjoyed many of them. I continue to fear I will become jaded "They sailed, they fought, same old, same old". However, I continue to find this series, and this book in particular, some of the best reading I have ever done. There
Show More
is the sailing and the fighting, which does not grow dull, no matter how much I read. The range of emotions expressed by the characters continues to amaze. The range of experiences and the reactions are so brilliantly concieved and described. HMS Surprise in particular, and the series in general, are treasures worth reading.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lucybrown
This may well be my favorite of the series which is saying something since I love this series.
LibraryThing member parelle
My recomendation to anyone starting on the Patrick O'Brian series is simple: wait at least three books. If you're not willing to give a twenty book (and then some) epic a good chance, then you won't finish it anyway. It's a rule which has helped me time and again in introducing unsuspecting friends
Show More
to the wonders of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
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'.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ursula
The third entry in the Aubrey-Maturin series. This one finds the HMS Surprise on a run to India and back, crossing paths with a French fleet and an equally dangerous contender, Diana Villiers. I really enjoyed this book, and it had some of the funniest Jack/Stephen moments I've yet read.
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
This is the third book in the Aubrey/Maturin series of books and in many ways it is my favourite but is still not without its faults IMHO.

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
Show More
most of that wealth will go to the crown and not to the various ships' captains he realizes that he is still in debt. He is arrested a thrown into a debtors' jail but on release is given the task of ferrying an envoy to the East in the frigate HMS Surprise. Meanwhile Maturin has been arrested by the French as a spy and is tortured by them on the island of Minorca. In a daring raid Aubrey rescues Maturin and they sail to the East touching on Madeira, Brazil and Bombay,where Maturin reacquaints himself with the love of his life Diana Villiers and her beau Canning, along the way. Once out in the East Surprise comes up against a French fleet lead by his old adversary Linois.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JudithProctor
Not a light read, but well worth it. The descriptions of the ship handling weather extremes going round the Horn are vivid. The difficulties of both sending and receiving mail when ships are travelling far and fast are brought home all too clearly as Aubrey tries to maintain contact with his
Show More
Show Less
LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
H.M.S. Surprise begins almost immediately after Post Captain ended, with Captain Jack Aubrey's famous luck again failing him on land as his hard-won fortune slips away from him. In Patrick O'Brian's third story, Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin must embark on a mission to the Far East to deliver an
Show More
ambassador, meanwhile dealing with their respective relationships with Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers. O'Brian continues to demonstrate his mastery of the nautical genre, exploring the idea of the far east in early nineteenth century British thought. There are more examples of Aubrey's tactical brilliance and plenty of depictions of natural philosophy. I consider this book on par with the first novel and better than the second, in which Aubrey and Maturin spent far too much time on land (though this was necessary to show another aspect of naval life).
Show Less
LibraryThing member malcrf
Typical O'Brian. Wonderful language, details and characterisation, masterful battle scene and completely evocative of the time and circumstances. Just a little slow in places, and not quite the page-turner of other Aubrey/Maturin volumes.
LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
I never know what to say about Patrick O'Brian books in reviews. It's another Patrick O'Brian book; it made me laugh, made my pulse mount, made me stay up past my bedtime and lose great chunks of my day. Oh, and this one made me cry as well.

This one is particularly notable for the titular frigate,
Show More
with whom I dare say any susceptible reader, not just Jack Aubrey, will fall deeply in love. The usual heady mixture of Aubrey's action and worries with Maturin's explorations and cogitations, topped off as ever with their great friendship.

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...
Show Less
LibraryThing member rakerman
Unabridged audiobook read by Ric Jerrom:
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.
LibraryThing member rakerman
Unabridged audiobook read by Patrick Tull.

I recommend the separate audiobooks read by Ric Jerrom over Patrick Tull as a reader.
LibraryThing member leslie.98
It has been quite a while since I read "Post Captain", the book before this one, and I found it took me a while to get back into the world of Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin. The beginning is very exciting but that story line faded out, which I found a little disappointing. As expected, there were
Show More
plenty of adventures at sea - storms & battles & Maturin's side trips investigating the local fauna - but rather more about both Jack & Stephen's romantic life than I had expected.

Simon Vance does an excellent narration.
Show Less


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

379 p.; 8.3 inches


0393307611 / 9780393307610
Page: 0.4243 seconds