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This sixteenth book of the Aubreyiad, featuring the exploits of Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey and his physician-musician-naturalist-secret agent friend Stephen Maturin, opens with the British privateer frigate Surprise chasing an American ditto through the South Pacific.
Nature brings the chase to a terrifying conclusion, thanks to the explosion of a volcano. This stunning act of God sets the stage for the remarkable tragedy that unfolds in the pages that follow.
Let’s put the pieces together:
- A French visionary named du Tourd becomes Aubrey’s prisoner: a man with dangerous, egalitarian ideas that agree with those of a certain religious sect on board.
- At the same time, a member of that sect becomes one of Jack’s lieutenants, filling a vacancy caused by a well-aimed volcanic missile.
- Du Tourd recognizes Stephen and is prepared to compromise his cover as a British naval intelligence agent.
- Stephen’s top-top-secret assignment in Peru is to ignite the fuse of the independence movement, though Spain is still at the time an ally of England.
- when one of Jack’s officers helps Du Tourd escape, Stephen’s plans are exposed, forcing the doctor to flee for his life through the high Andes while Jack and a hand-picked crew suffer thirst and hunger in an open boat. Reunited after two harsh tests of survival, the friends then undergo one of the most desperate chases ever – talk about being caught between an iceberg and a hard place!
There, I have made the plot seem very direct and simple. But the pleasure of reading this book is its subtlety and variety, its depiction of exotic scenes, complicated situations, many-layered characters, and an adventure whose hero, at the end, may call it a failure while you, the reader, revel in its success. Don’t let the ending fool you; the adventure is not nearly over, as the next book (The Commodore) picks up nearly where this one leaves off.