Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, veterans now of many battles, return in this novel to the seas where they first sailed as shipmates. But Jack is now a senior captain commanding a line-of-battle ship in the Royal Navy's blockade of Toulon, and this is a longer, harder, colder war than the dashing frigate actions of his early days. A sudden turn of events takes him and Stephen off on a hazardous mission to the Greek Islands, where all his old skills of seamanship and his proverbial luck when fighting against odds come triumphantly into their own.
For the umpteenth part in a potentially infinite series of novels there is no need to bother with even the most basic Aristotelian structure of having a beginning, a middle and an end; instead, just like a chapter in a novel, it has to fit in with the parts surrounding it and the overall picture, a mosaic piece rather than an independent entity, part of a whole rather than something that needs to stand on its own. This appears to have suited O'Brian perfectly - even the early Aubrin-Maturin novels, before he was planning them as a series, are characterized by a free, easy flow rather than a tightly drawn structure and as the series progresses O'Brian happily throws all limiting constraints of a formal framework overboard, in the end jettisoning even plausibility as his Napoleonic War drags on an improbably long time, stretching the series' timeframe far beyond any realistic limits.
This time, O'Brian's target seems to have been to find out with just how few things actually happening he could get away with - there have been earlier volumes which have been low on action but in The Ionian Mission absolutely nothing at all happens until the novel's final fifteen pages or so. And by "nothing at all" I do mean nothing at all - in spite of several attempts to engage French ships, to Jack Aubrey's increasing frustration there is no action actually happening, engagements always avoided at the last moment by the singularly evasive French. Instead, we get an extensive portrait of life on sea at the start of the nineteenth century, with special emphasis on songs and poetry (and yes, that is to be taken quite literally, too - the reader should be prepared for an uncommon lot of - really not very good - naval poetry when embarking on The Ionian Mission).
But as it turns out (not really surprisingly, for anyone who has followed the series this far) is that Captain Aubrey's frustration is the reader's delight. A novel describing nothing but the daily routine life on a Royal Navy vessel at the start of the nineteenth century might at first glance not sound like exciting reading material for anyone who does not happen to have a special interest in that particular subject, in fact from the bare description it sounds exceedingly boring. But somehow, Patrick O'Brian manages to make reading about sailors and officers going about their work and relaxing afterwards during a lengthy sea voyage appear like the most fascinating thing ever and not for a single moment through three hundred pages of non-plot, non-adventure and non-action did I feel even faintly bored. In a way, the reader becomes both Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin when reading an Aubrey-Maturin novel: like the former he enjoys navigating the sea of O'Brian's prose, gliding smoothly and easily, always with a favourable wind at his back, while, like the latter, delighting in all the wonders he encounters along the way, the original similes and metaphors, the well-turned periods, the vivid descriptions. The Ionian Mission presents readers with the pure essence of the Aubrey-Maturin series, stripped bare of everything that is extraneous to it until all that remains is the flow of O'Brian's language; and this novel proves conclusively that he really can write about absolutely anything and make it a joy to read, that his prose breathes life into even the most dry-seeming subject matter, and that even the most trifling and insignificant things sparkle when he touches them with the magic wand of his pen.
That said, this is not the most colorful episode of the series. Those looking for action
In summary, as an individual volume, this is a mild recommendation though, as part of the larger series, the recommendation is stronger.
The only difficulty with his novels, as I see it from this one, is the lengthy nature of them. At this point (#9 or something in the series) O'Brian has given up on all pretense, if he had one, of singular novels and has instead rolled on with the Robert Jordan style lifetime taking epic. I struggle with novels (and series) such as these as one must either take all the novels as one or not at all. I've only gotten a taste of this journey, and yes, it does leave me ready to read another. The trouble is, O'Brian has set off for a long voyage, and there's not much for entertainment on a ship once you get to know your fellow passengers, no matter how enchanting they are. In small steps, yes, I could see reading this series over my (and his) lifetime...but he's dead, the last novels at the printers, and I have 15 or so books to wade through. Is the adventure worth it (and more importantly, did he finish the story arcs within the time allotted. I'm not getting sucked into a Robert Jordan/Mickey Spillane/that guy that wrote Dune half-ghost-written-style crap again.
The main blockade action apparently inspired by a similar minor action of 5. Nov 1813 between Edward Pellew and French Vice-Admiral Maxime Julien Émeriau de Beauverger, with Jack stepping in for Pellew? Seltzer notes the novel is one of several taking place in the "repeating year" of 1813.
Stephen and Diana's particular arrangement, so soon after their wedding. It appears to work, but it's soon yet. The theme of cuckoldry threaded neatly through, from Stephen to Jack, and to other characters in very different situations, cleverly done. Schuyler: "The real question is: Who is writing the letters?" (to Stephen falsely suggesting Diana is having an affair with Jagiello).
Jack's purchase of coloured fireworks powder, used for gunnery practise and unexpected effect. Hauling the cannon overland. / Chapter 1 an amusing character sketch of Jack and Stephen, separately and together, O'Brian's gift to the reader in showcasing their friendship and individual personalities. Gower's tailpiece a wink regarding a running joke.
Stephen suffers grave wounds (from splinters and falling shoulder block) during skirmish with Jemmapes. Later, his ill-advised decision to go a-swimming, almost lost at sea and cutting short Jack's effort to bring the French to bear.
Jack's upperyardsman's race with Admiral Mitchell aboard flag, arguably to a draw. Jack later shares Stephen's legendary witticism about the dog-watch, to "infinite mirth".
Surprise taking on the Turkish men-of-war Torgud and Kitabi. Pullings almost loses it in close-arms boarding action aboard the Torgud, falling to deck and saved only by Jack's personal intervention.
Seltzer notes only the narrative takes place in the "repeating year" of 1813: next reading, suss out clues as to months or seasons.
Patrick O'Brian (whose real name was Richard Patrick Russ) is an uneven writer at best. Each volume in this on-going sea-faring adventure does have stirring scenes of battle, often complete with missing limbs, shattered appendages, and other naturalistic gore. At these points, the books are veritable "page turners" for readers who enjoy fast-paced action and the vicarious excitement of pitched battles among men-of-war, frigates, sloops, and other fighting ships. Some of the descriptions are also rather educational; the reader comes away with a new appreciation of what naval battle was like in the days when ships were at the mercy of wind and wave. One learns what a "fighting top" was in these ships and why they carried foot soldiers as well as sailors.
On the other hand, O'Brian/Russ is a less successful writer when he endeavors to incorporate human-interest themes not directly germane to naval warfare. The pages devoted to Maturin's marriage to Diana are an unfortunate example of this weakness. The reader learns that it is hardly an intimate or passionate sort of marriage, and both partners are happy enough when Maturin goes again to sea with his captain, Jack Aubrey. This parallels a similar description in an earlier volume of the not-very-joyous marriage of Aubrey with his own sweetheart, and neither adds significantly to the overall story line.
Probably as in real life, there are also stretches of time in the novel where little transpires. The lack of any particular action or even captivating intrigue for rather long periods leaves the reader wishing that something of interest would happen. At one of these rather boring stretches of nothingness, I laid the book aside, read UNDER A FLAMING SKY: THE GREAT HINCKLEY FIRESTORM OF 1894 by Daniel James Brown, and then returned to finish THE IONIAN MISSION.
The ending of this volume leaves the reader suspended in the literary air, by the way. Aubrey has successfully attacked two Turkish warships in a thrilling climatic chapter. Having boarded one of the Turkish ships, he stands on the deck when one of his officers advises him to return to their own ship because this one happens to be sinking. End of book. Essentially, the volume ends in the very midst of an infrequent, exciting action. There is no sort of literary resolution, denouement, conclusion, or sense that anything has been completed. The ending is incredibly unsatisfying, and one prays that the next book in the series, TREASON'S HARBOUR, picks up exactly where this one leaves off, but, if O'Brian/Russ runs true to form, we'll rejoin Aubrey and Maturin somewhere in the future with no clue as to what happened after his victory over the Turks.
All in all, I find O'Brian/Russ to be generally a decent writer but hardly a great one. His books are generally entertaining reads but not memorable ones. His story line is generally entertaining but not a significant contribution to modern literature. One could certainly find a much worse use of time than reading his seafaring novels, but then one could likely find a better use as well. The one recommendation I shall presume to offer is that, if one wishes to sample O'Brian/Russ's writing, he begin with the first novel of the series, MASTER AND COMMANDER, and come to this one in its proper place in the series so as to properly understand many of the references and characters.
Of particular note is the return of the HMS Surprise, Jack’s favorite ship, second only to the Sophie, his first command. Jack is tasked with control of the Surprise to negotiate with the various Turkish authorities in order to determine who will best aid England in harrying French shipping in the Ionian Sea. Like his previous novels, O’Brian perfectly recreates the world of the Napoleonic War in 1812, this time focusing on much of the careful negotiations between England and other European, Asian, and Arabian powers that enabled their eventual victory. This Folio Society edition reprints the original text with insets containing historical portraits and sketches to illustrate some of the scenes. A great contribution to the Aubrey-Maturin series and the second of twelve to focus on what O’Brian described as an extended 1812, with these dozen books taking place between the beginning of June 1813 and November 1813.
Although there is less action in this one than usual. Indeed, for much of the novel, there is incident after incident of utterly failing to engage with the enemy for one reason or
And, of course, there is O'Brian's usual low-key humor scattered throughout it all to make it much more fun, no matter what is or isn't going on, plot-wise.
This is a wonderful episode in the lives of Maturin and Aubrey. Both characters are adorably showcased here, plus Aubrey gets to be a serious badass, which he's missed out on in the last few books. Additionally, this book is particularly funny--I cannot count the number of times I cackled.