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The words “outraged platypus” appear on the third page of this book. Personally, I think that would have been a great title. However, for the title of his fifteenth installment in the adventures of British frigate commander Jack Aubrey and his physician-naturalist-intelligence-agent chum Stephen Maturin, Patrick O’Brian chose the name of a ship that doesn’t heave into view for another 200 pages and more. Oh, well. We can’t have everything.
Jack and Stephen are back aboard the Surprise, the privateer frigate Stephen recently sold to Jack. The nominal captain of the Surprise, as privateer, is faithful old Tom Pullings, but with Jack on board it sails as “His Majesty’s Hired Frigate.” And it’s a frigate on His Majesty’s business, too. British trade vessels have been caught in the crossfire between two rival chiefs on a Polynesian island, and Jack’s orders are to figure out which side is most likely to swear allegiance to King George and help them rub out the other side.
It’s a tricky thing, though. Ordinarily Jack relies on Stephen’s advice. But this time, the nature of the mission seems bound to offend Stephen’s anti-imperialist feelings. But Jack doesn’t have time to agonize over the strain this mission will put on their friendship. The whole ship is being pulled apart and he is the last person to find out why.
Why? Because of a woman. A convict woman, escaped from the New South Wales penal colony, soon married to one of Jack’s officers and, nearly as soon, the center of a tangle of romantic rivalry and jealousy that embitters the gunroom [or officer’s mess, for those of you tuning in late] and threatens to undermine the discipline of the entire ship. What do you expect to happen when the officers despise each other, but that the foremast hands will choose up sides among them?
Prepare to behold Jack Aubrey’s fury unleashed. Prepare for the seductive charms and vaguely chilling air of mystery that surround young Clarissa Oakes. Prepare for some gut-twisting battles, some thrilling naval-intelligence-type discoveries, some charming encounters with the nature and culture of the South Pacific, and loads upon loads of the tension that could, and often did, arise between strong-willed people forced to live for long periods between the decks of a small vessel in the middle of a huge ocean.
The Truelove has, above and beyond all that I have described, a virtually perfect plot that arcs gracefully from the first page to the last, and that nevertheless fits as snugly between The Nutmeg of Consolation and The Wine-Dark Sea as the battens fit into their cleats. (To understand this analogy better, read the book; Jack Aubrey’s explanation of “battening down the hatches” is very helpful.) Replete with surprises, reversals, dark forebodings, dashing exploits, wistful partings, and the joy and anxiety of a brand-new father halfway around the globe from his firstborn, this book contains a rich world of experience for you to relish.