The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

This is book number six in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I enjoyed the previous one so much I thought it would be a difficult act to follow, but I actually found this one just as good – and maybe even better. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, I would recommend beginning with the first of the series, Master and Commander, and saving this review until you’ve caught up; otherwise, although I have tried to avoid too many spoilers in this post, you may come across something you would prefer not to know just yet.

The Fortune of War picks up the story shortly after Desolation Island ended. With his ship HMS Leopard declared unfit, Jack receives orders to return to England to take command of a forty-gun frigate, the Acasta. He and Stephen Maturin, accompanied by several other members of the crew, begin the long journey home as passengers on the courier ship La Flèche. Early in the voyage, however, they learn that war has broken out between Britain and America – the War of 1812 – and following a series of disasters, they are taken prisoner and find themselves brought to Boston, which is now enemy territory. At first, despite being wounded in the arm, Jack is not too worried; he’s sure there will be an exchange of prisoners soon and then they can be on their way again. The Americans, though, are convinced that there had been a spy on board the Leopard and are not about to let their suspects escape so easily!

I really enjoyed this book, after an initial panic where I found I couldn’t remember what happened at the end of Desolation Island. I think I need to stop leaving such long gaps between books! Luckily, though, Jack gives a recap to the Admiral in the first chapter and this serves as a reminder for the reader too. Once I settled back into the flow of the story, I loved it, particularly the parts of the novel set in Boston where Stephen’s spying activities come to the forefront. This leads to exciting scenes which are different from anything we’ve read in the series so far.

Stephen also has his long-awaited reunion with Diana Villiers, the woman he loves and who broke his heart at the end of HMS Surprise – but Diana has changed and it seems that his own feelings for her have changed too. Despite his disillusionment I found Diana much easier to like in this book than I did in the earlier ones, although with so much still unresolved by the end, I was left wondering whether they will find any happiness in the next book or whether their relationship will continue down its tempestuous path.

I have stopped worrying about the nautical terminology in these novels. I appreciate the authenticity O’Brian brings to the naval scenes, the level of his research and of course, his writing ability, but I know I’m never going to be able to follow everything that is happening; as long as I can understand the outcome of each battle or manoeuvre I’m happy! I think this must be the first book in the series where Jack has not actually had a ship of his own to command, but he and Stephen still manage to get caught up in two naval actions, both of which are closely based on real events from the War of 1812.

The next book in the series is The Surgeon’s Mate and based on the quality of the last two books I’m really looking forward to it.

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Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

The fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and probably my favourite so far! For once I found that I was able to follow everything that was happening – the nautical parts are finally becoming easier to understand and, now that I’m five books in, the characters are starting to feel like old friends. If you’re not familiar yet with the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, you may like to read my review of the first in the series – Master and Commander; otherwise, I have made the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but can’t help referring to certain characters and elements of the previous four books.

Like most, if not all, of the books in the series so far, this one begins on land. Jack Aubrey is in a much better position financially than he was in at the beginning of the previous novel, The Mauritius Command, and is able to provide a comfortable home for his wife Sophie and their expanding family (the twins now have a baby brother called George). It seems that trouble could be on the horizon, however, as less scrupulous men prepare to take advantage of Jack’s open, trusting nature, and much as Sophie loves her husband, she knows he needs to get back to sea again as quickly as possible. An opportunity soon arises when Jack is asked to take command of HMS Leopard on a voyage to Australia to assist the notorious Captain Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) who is having difficulties in his new position as Governor of New South Wales.

Stephen Maturin is joining Jack on the Leopard as ship’s surgeon, but there is another reason for his presence on the voyage which has not been revealed to Jack. The ship is carrying a cargo of convicts to Australia and among them is a beautiful female prisoner, Mrs Wogan, who is suspected of being an American spy. Stephen has been asked to keep an eye on her throughout the journey to see if he can catch her in the act of espionage. This mission is of particular interest to Stephen because Mrs Wogan is a friend of Diana Villiers, the woman he loves, who has fled to America after also being accused of spying.

I’ve enjoyed all of the previous four books in the series (some more than others) but I struggled at times with the last one, The Mauritius Command, because of the large proportion of the book devoted to naval battles. I didn’t have that problem with Desolation Island. Although there is a sea chase and a brief battle – involving the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid – this forms a relatively small part of the story. Instead, there is more focus on the daily lives of the people aboard the ship and the challenges and dangers they face on a long voyage. The crew consider the Leopard (or “the horrible old Leopard” as they call it) to be an unlucky ship and it does seem to be living up to its reputation with rumours of a ghost aboard, a sickness which breaks out amongst the prisoners and a close encounter with an iceberg!

Another reason I preferred this novel to the previous one is that more time was spent on the personal relationships between the characters. I didn’t feel that we saw much of Jack and Stephen together in The Mauritius Command, but in this book they have more opportunities to talk and to indulge their shared love of music. With some of the misfortunes that befall the Leopard towards the end of the book, Jack needs all the loyal friends he can get! With Jack kept in the dark about the true reasons for Mrs Wogan’s presence on the ship, Stephen is unable to confide in him as much as he would like to and is left to wrestle privately with his feelings regarding Mrs Wogan and her connections with Diana. With most of the novel spent at sea, he doesn’t have as many chances to observe the flora and fauna as usual, but once they reach the shores of Desolation Island, he is able to study albatrosses, seals and penguins.

There’s so much left unresolved at the end of this book that I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m tempted to pick up the next one, The Fortune of War. With Jack’s mission incomplete and the War of 1812 about to begin, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues!

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

The Mauritius Command This is the fourth of Patrick O’Brian’s novels following the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin. I have always been (and I’m sure I always will be) a landlubber, so I’m actually quite proud of myself for managing to get so far into a series which is set largely at sea! Unfortunately, the nautical details and terminology are not getting any easier for me to understand and that made this fourth novel, in particular, slightly challenging at times – but I did still enjoy this one, if not quite as much as I enjoyed the first three books.

In the intervening period between the end of the previous novel, HMS Surprise, and the beginning of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey has married Sophie Williams and she has given birth to twin girls. Despite these happy events, however, Jack is feeling restless and miserable. Currently ashore with no ship to command, he is having to live on half-pay, and as his mother-in-law has lost all her money, including Sophie’s dowry, the whole family are crowded together in a small, damp cottage on the Hampshire coast.

Jack’s spirits are lifted when his friend, Stephen Maturin – ship’s surgeon, naturalist and occasional spy – arrives bearing the news that Jack is required to lead a naval campaign against the French with the aim of taking control of the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion. Setting sail aboard the HMS Boadicea, a thirty-eight-gun frigate, Jack is temporarily promoted to commodore and given command of a squadron. As if his mission wasn’t already going to be difficult enough, he also faces problems in the form of his own captains: Lord Clonfert, a handsome, dashing young man who is determined to outdo everybody else, and Captain Corbett, who believes in strict discipline and whose crew are always on the verge of mutiny.

Until now, we have only seen Jack Aubrey as captain of one individual ship; here he is in command of several, something which brings new challenges and requires a new set of skills. Whereas in the past he has been able to concentrate on getting to know his own crew and his own ship, now he is responsible for coordinating the movements of more than one vessel and working with other officers of various ranks.

‘Why, don’t you see,’ cried Jack, his mind fixed upon this question of command, ‘it has always been the command of a single ship. You are bred up to it—it comes natural. But high command is something you come to suddenly, with no experience. There are captains under you; and handling the captains of a squadron, each one of them God the Father of his own quarterdeck, is a very different matter from handling a ship’s company under your own eye. You can rarely choose them and you can rarely get rid of them…’

The plot of The Mauritius Command is based on a real naval campaign in the Indian Ocean (the Mauritius Campaign of 1809-11, part of the Napoleonic Wars) and I think this is possibly why I didn’t get on as well with this book as I did with the previous ones. Sticking so closely to historical events meant less time was spent on fictional storylines and on developing the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin; apart from the opening chapters, there is almost no land-based action either and a large portion of the novel is devoted to naval battles which, well-written and accurate as they may be, I find it hard to get excited about. This is just my personal opinion, of course, and I’m sure readers with different tastes will love this book for the very reasons that I didn’t!

Although we are given a glimpse at the beginning of the book of Jack’s married life with Sophie (and have our first chance to meet the twins) I was sorry not to see anything of Diana Villiers in this novel and I’m hoping she will make an appearance in the next one. So far I have found each book in the series to have its own different strengths and weaknesses; maybe book five (Desolation Island) will be more to my taste than this one.

HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

HMS Surprise Do you love novels set at sea?

Do you know your topsail from your mainsail?

Do you find descriptions of sea battles exciting and easy to understand?

I would answer NO to all three of those questions, so you may be wondering why I am continuing to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. The answer is that while, yes, most of the action takes place at sea and there are certainly a lot of nautical terms and quite a few sea battles, the series has so much more to offer than that. So let me ask three more questions.

Do you love novels with strong, complex, nuanced characters?

Do you like to be swept away to fascinating and exotic locations?

When you read historical fiction, do you like the setting to feel accurate and the language authentic?

Now you see why I’m happy to struggle through the naval terminology and the occasional engagement between enemy ships; HMS Surprise has all of the qualities I’ve just mentioned above and more. There’s adventure (including a dramatic rescue scene, a duel and a storm), a long voyage during which we visit Brazil, India and Madeira, romantic rivalries, witty dialogue and humour – where else would you find a line like “Jack, you have debauched my sloth!” – and descriptions of life aboard a navy frigate that are so interesting and detailed even a landlubber like me can appreciate them.

This is the third book in the series and although it is my favourite so far, I would recommend reading both Master and Commander and Post Captain first. I think it’s important to start at the beginning so that you can watch the friendship develop between Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and physician, naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin and so you know the background to their relationships with other characters, particularly the two women in their lives, Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers. I’m definitely finding the books more and more enjoyable now that I’m familiar with the characters and with Patrick O’Brian’s writing style.

I realise I haven’t said very much about the plot of this particular instalment, but I’m not sure that it’s really necessary. It’s probably enough to know that Jack, whose marriage plans have been put on hold as he’s in debt again, has been given the job of escorting a British ambassador to the East Indies, while Stephen, who is accompanying him, has learned that the woman he loves is in India and is determined to see her – even if it means he risks having his heart broken. To go into any further detail would mean giving too much of the story away (I always find it difficult to know how much to say about books that are part of a series) so I’ll leave it there.

The Mauritius Command will be next for me and this time I’ll try not to leave such a long gap between books. I was shocked when I discovered that it was August 2013 when I read Post Captain! Meanwhile I’m reading Temeraire by Naomi Novik, which I’ve seen described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons and which I’m counting as my first book for the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge.

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Post Captain This is the second book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series following the adventures of Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.

Post Captain continues the story begun in Master and Commander. As the novel opens, the French Revolutionary Wars have come to a sudden end with the Peace of Amiens and Aubrey and Maturin have returned to England where Jack has rented a country estate – which happens to be near the home of Mrs Williams, a lady with several daughters of marriageable age. For the first hundred or so pages of the book, we follow Jack and Stephen as they live the lives of country gentleman, attending social engagements and becoming involved in complex romantic relationships with the eldest Williams daughter, Sophia, and her widowed cousin, Diana Villiers.

This period of peace soon comes to an end, though. Jack and Stephen are forced to flee to France when Jack finds himself in financial difficulties and while they are there, war breaks out again. The rest of the book centres around their return to naval action, Jack’s efforts to avoid being arrested for debt, and the conflict between Jack and Stephen caused by their involvement with Sophie and Diana.

After I posted my thoughts on the previous book, Master and Commander, and mentioned my general dislike of nautical books, I was told that this one might be more to my taste as it had more land-based action. And I did enjoy this book a lot more than the previous one. I still struggled at times with the sea battles and naval terminology, but I think I can cope with not being able to follow all the details of what is happening as long as I can understand the final outcome. As for the land-based chapters, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything more Austenesque that wasn’t actually written by Jane Austen! The Austen comparison, by the way, is not just because of the plot but also the writing style and language.

The fact that fewer pages are devoted to descriptions of naval action means there’s lots of time to develop the two main characters and explore various aspects of their personalities and their relationships. I also enjoyed meeting Sophie and Diana and I look forward to getting to know them better. Obviously when Aubrey and Maturin are at sea it’s a very male-dominated environment, so I was pleased to see that O’Brian also writes such convincing female characters.

With the friendship between Jack and Stephen being threatened by their romantic entanglements, there’s a lot of tension in this book but there are plenty of funny moments too, including a scene with a dancing bear on the road to Spain. I also loved Stephen’s attempts at beekeeping while at sea…

“There! A glass hive. Is it not ingenious, charming? I have always wanted to keep bees.”

“But how in God’s name do you expect to keep bees on a man-of-war?” cried Jack. “Where in God’s name do you expect them to find flowers, at sea? How will they eat?”

“You can see their every motion,” said Stephen, close against the glass, entranced. “Oh, as for their feeding, never fret your anxious mind; they will feed with us upon a saucer of sugar, at stated intervals. If the ingenious Monsieur Huber can keep bees, and he blind, the poor man, surely we can manage in a great spacious xebec?”

Having enjoyed this book so much, I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading the rest of the series than I did after the first book. I’m looking forward to H.M.S Surprise!

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood

“Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me today – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”

One of my favourite books of last year was Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, a classic historical adventure novel set during the French Revolution. I loved it so much I immediately added two more of Sabatini’s books to my Classics Club list – Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk – though not without some reservations as these are both books about pirates and with my general dislike of books set on ships I thought the seafaring elements might be too much for me. I was wrong. Captain Blood is another wonderful book and I enjoyed it almost as much as Scaramouche!

Peter Blood, an Irish physician and former soldier, is arrested during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 when he is discovered tending the wounds of an enemy of King James II. Wrongly found guilty of treason, he is lucky enough to avoid hanging but instead he is sent into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Here Blood meets two people who will have a huge influence on his future: Colonel Bishop, the cruel, brutal plantation owner and his beautiful niece, Arabella, with whom Blood falls in love. When the island is attacked by Spanish raiders, he seizes his chance to escape by commandeering one of their ships and after transforming himself into the notorious Captain Blood, our hero becomes a pirate both feared and respected throughout the Caribbean.

Sailing up and down the shores of Barbados, Jamaica and Tortuga, Captain Blood becomes involved in a series of exciting adventures and daring escapades, while being pursued by both Colonel Bishop and a Spanish rival, Don Esteban, who has sworn revenge – but what sets Blood apart from the other pirates he meets is his sense of honour and his dream of one day clearing his name and settling down to a peaceful life with Arabella. To the reader, it’s obvious that Peter Blood has become a pirate because he feels he has no choice – his only other option is to remain in slavery – but Arabella doesn’t understand this and when she tells him she can never love a “thief and pirate”, he must find a way to redeem himself in her eyes.

It amazes me that Rafael Sabatini’s books are not more widely read. As well as his great writing style, clever plots and vividly described characters, his novels also have well-researched and believable historical settings. While I was reading this book, I never questioned that I was in the Caribbean of the 17th century, just as when I read Scaramouche I was fully immersed in revolutionary France. And my fears that I might struggle with the pirate theme proved to be completely unfounded!

Sabatini keeps the sailing terminology to a level that even I could cope with and I found that even without understanding every nautical reference it didn’t affect my understanding of the story (which is what I also discovered when I read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian earlier this year). Although there were a lot of sea battles, they weren’t too difficult to follow and in fact, not only could I follow them but I actually enjoyed them too, which is something I never thought I would say! I suspect that the descriptions of these battles were not completely realistic and in real life Blood would never have been able to overcome such great odds every time, but with my total lack of naval knowledge I’m happy to pretend that he could.

But Captain Blood is more than just a swashbuckling adventure story and even if it had only been half as exciting, I would still have loved it solely for the great characterisation of Peter Blood, a true romantic hero (in the old-fashioned sense of the term). Like Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo or Francis Crawford from the Lymond Chronicles, Blood is one of those characters who can sometimes seem to be almost superhuman. He has an intelligence and wit superior to everyone else’s, he’s charismatic and quick thinking, multilingual, as talented a swordsman as he is a surgeon, and when it comes to buccaneering, he’s a brilliant leader and tactician. However difficult the situation he and his men might find themselves in, he never fails to come up with an imaginative and ingenious way to get out of it. But despite his perfection or perhaps because of it, things don’t always go smoothly for Captain Blood and like the other characters I’ve mentioned, he experiences a series of injustices and misfortunes that makes him a character we can sympathise with and believe in.

Captain Blood was published in 1922 and is available online as a free ebook, though the edition I read was the Vintage Classics paperback pictured here. I recommend giving it a try even if pirate stories don’t sound appealing to you, as it’s worth reading this one just to meet Peter Blood!

She Rises by Kate Worsley

She Rises She Rises begins in 1740 when Louise Fletcher, a young dairymaid from Essex, is offered a position as lady’s maid in a sea captain’s house in Harwich. Louise has never been more than a few miles away from home, so arriving at the Handleys’ prosperous household in the busy port town is like entering a different world. As Louise settles into her new job and gets to know her selfish, spoiled young mistress Rebecca Handley, she also decides to see if she can find out what happened to her brother, Luke, who went away to sea and has never been seen or heard from again.

In the other main thread of the story we learn how Luke was pressed into the Royal Navy from a tavern in Harwich and found himself taken aboard the warship, the Essex. Luke has never been on a ship this size before and soon discovers that life at sea is harsh and dangerous. Things improve when he is befriended by an older, more experienced seaman, Nick Stavenger, but still Luke wants nothing more than to escape and get back home to the girl he loves.

Louise’s story and Luke’s are told in alternating chapters and both narratives have a distinctive voice and style of their own. Luke’s is in the present tense and is filled with nautical terminology and slang; Louise’s is addressed to a mysterious ‘you’ – though we don’t have to wait long before we learn who ‘you’ is. Having finished the book, I think I can see why Kate Worsley chose to write the story in this way, but I’m not a fan of unusual or experimental writing styles in general and couldn’t help thinking that it made the book harder to read than it really needed to be!

The book was so atmospheric, though! The chapters set at sea felt realistic and gave me a good idea of how hard life could be for a pressed man in the navy, though as usual I struggled with all the references to mizen yards, main-topsails and other seafaring terms. But the descriptions of eighteenth century Harwich were particularly vivid: the labyrinths of dark alleys and smugglers’ tunnels, the smell of fish, the sailors standing in tavern doorways, the way the streets become flooded with sea water when the tide rises.

So, there were some aspects of this book that I loved and others that I didn’t like very much. I found it too slow at the beginning, but when Louise’s and Luke’s stories finally come together, the effect is amazing. I had been starting to get impatient, wondering how the two of them would be linked, but when it happened it was definitely worth waiting for! Things that had confused me earlier suddenly made perfect sense and some of the revelations in the final section of the book made me want to go back and read earlier chapters again.

She Rises reminded me of Sarah Waters, particularly Tipping the Velvet, due to the way both authors deal with themes such as gender and identity within a historical setting – so I wasn’t surprised to read that Sarah Waters was Kate Worsley’s mentor. As a first novel this was a very clever and ambitious book and although I had too many problems with it to be able to say that I loved it, I will be hoping for more books from Kate Worsley in the future.