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War is hell, but peace can be mighty inconvenient, too. Jack Aubrey feels this strongly as a Royal Navy post-captain near the top of the seniority list. Very soon he will reach the point where he may either hoist the blue flag of an admiral or be passed over for promotion: a terrible and irreversible disgrace, popularly described as being “yellowed.” And now that Waterloo has come and gone, and Napoleon is out of the picture, and the world’s oceans aren’t full of enemy ships ripe to be plucked as lucrative prizes, there isn’t much chance of an officer like Jack distinguishing himself.
But a slight chance there is. Aubrey’s friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, has proposed a way of combining a hydrographical expedition with a bit of off-the-record intelligence work, supporting Chile’s drive for independence from Spain. Under the pretext of surveying a chain of Pacific islands, Aubrey will help the fledgling Chilean republic develop a strong enough navy to ensure their independence, while the doctor does secret agent stuff among the conflicting juntas on land. Meanwhile, as Stephen woos a woman he wants to marry, Jack locks sabres with real historical figures – some of them tragic – and nurses the career of a promising young protegé.
This is (deep sigh) the last completed book in Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-volume novel of British naval life in the early 1800s, which began with Master and Commander. And though it does leave some loose ends that were apparently to be tied up in the unfinished and untitled Book 21, Blue at the Mizzen is a very satisfying book. In some ways – or at least one way – it really does give fans of this series a sense of closure. Jack Aubrey’s naval career passes through a significant crisis. Stephen’s perception of maritime reality reaches a higher degree of maturity. And, let’s face it, nothing beats the battle in which the frigate Surprise (28 guns) attempts to cut out the 55-gun Esmeralda while under fire from a Peruvian shore-battery.
There are other thrilling incidents in the book, to be sure: another battle, storm and shipwreck, a risky dalliance with a superior officer’s wife, and urgent intelligent work galore. But not all of its pleasures are of the pulse-quickening variety. The developing relationships between truly remarkable personalities, the beauty of the language they speak to each other and that O’Brian uses to describe them, the seemingly limitless variation in the faces of sea and sky, the close observation of unusual flora and fauna (especially birds), the awesome delicacy of 19th-century manners, and the effortless flow of wit (in which, for example, one character says, “So you have come back,” and another replies, “I could not agree more”) sparkle about this book like facets of a fascinating jewel.
If you enjoy books that immerse you in another world with its own language, customs, and ordering of reality, do plunge into this series. You may find that it is painful to have to come up out of it again, as one must do after this book ends. But in twenty novels there is a lot to enjoy. And O’Brian has left us several other novels that I mean to read, including Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore.