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The sixth of twenty completed novels about a 19th-century Royal Navy captain named Jack Aubrey and his faithful ships surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is unusual in many ways. For example, in this book Aubrey is never in command of anything larger than a rowboat. As OBrian explains in the preface, the book dramatizes actual events in naval history, inserting his fictional characters into the action. Yet even though they don’t displace any of the real people who took part in these eventsfor example, Aubrey commands none of the ships that fight in the books two thrilling battle scenesOBrians characters make this story very much their own.
Now think about it. Its a historically accurate account of real events in which Jack and Stephen did not play any major role. Yet the adventure is wholly theirs. So obviously, a lot more is going on in this book than just a reconstruction of a couple naval battles. In fact, most of the action takes place on landon American soil, no less.
At this point in Englands war against Napoleon, the United States has joined the other side. Or rather, the U.S. has declared war on the U.K. Why? Because the Royal Navy has been strangling American trade, insulting American ships, molesting their crews (some of whom are deserters from the R.N.), and just generally acting as if the colonies still belonged to them. So what history bizarrely calls the War of 1812 (though it lasted until 1814, and wasn’t the only war going on in that year) has become an inconvenience to the R.N. What with France, Spain, and basically the rest of Europe out to get them, England didn’t really need to pick a fight on a whole other front. And worse, the puny American Navy hasn’t proven as harmless as expected. The first three engagements between the two navies have ended 3-0 in Americas favora record all the more crushing, considering Britains longstanding naval supremacy around the world.
Its also discouraging for Jack and Stephen, who are on their way home from the East Indies in a fast dispatch ship, which then sinks; who then survive a grueling ordeal in a small boat filled with far too many men and far too little food and water; who have scarcely come aboard the first British ship they meet when it is taken and sunk by an American frigate; and who find themselves more or less confined to a lunatic asylum in Boston while waiting for Jack to recover from his wounds and to be exchanged for an American prisoner of war.
But all this only sets the stage for the real adventure! For until now, no one outside Naval Intelligence has known that Stephen is also a spyindeed, a gifted spy who has done a great deal of damage to French intelligence. Now French intelligence is closing in, planning to do a great deal of damage to Stephen. While Jack sits at his hospital window, watching the American ships in the harbor and the British ships blockading it, Stephen finds himself caught in a tightening net of enemy agentswhile at the same time, forced to confront the woman who has repeatedly broken his heart, as far back as Post Captain.
The result is a high-tension, action-filled tale full of the double-crosses of love, the shocking violence of war, chases, escapes, courage, cowardice, bitter loss, desperate survival, government inefficiency, Chinese poetry, reverses, triumphs, battles against depression and substance abuse, fascinating cultural and historical detail, glimpses into medicine, music, natural science, and a seldom-seen viewpoint (for Americans, at least) into the war that inspired The Star Spangled Banner.
The evidence has been gathering, bit by bit, and it has reached the point where I must mention it. I believe that J. K. Rowling has read these books! Call it a wild guess, if you will. But already, in these first six books, I have encountered characters named Wetherby and Snape; a woman with a Kreacher-like habit of murmuring her private thoughts aloud; and scenes that reminded me, for instance, of the time Fudge came to question Harry in the hospital wing after Cedric died. The influence may be slight, but worth looking into nevertheless; any excuse to urge you to take a break from the fantasy world of wizardry and look into the equally brilliant fantasy world of old-time seamanship, gunnery, and intrigue.