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A critic’s endorsement on the cover of this book compares Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, heroes of this long series of historical novels, to Holmes and Watson. What devoted readers of this series will find astonishing is not the aptness of the comparison, nor yet its flattery of O’Brian’s characters, but frankly the paleness of Holmes and Watson over against Aubrey and Maturin.
Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character and no mistake; but he was never portrayed in anything like the psychological detail of Jack Aubrey. Watson, on his part, is a mere cypher who tags along and asks the great detective opportune questions; Maturin, meanwhile, is so far from being a sidekick that at times he seems to be the central protagonist of the series – a figure of immense complexity, whose many parts are hard to describe or even summarize without the use of several commas and one or two semicolons.
Classic whodunits they may be, but the omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes adventures is still in the same edition as the one I sold at a garage sale in 1987; it resides, moreover, on the clearance table at Barnes & Noble. Meanwhile the Aubrey-Maturin adventures, which God preserve from an omnibus edition, have been shouted up as companions to Jane Austen’s novels: a brilliant, colorful, thrilling, moving portrait of the early 1800s that has already taken its place among modern literary masterworks.
Most amazing of all, this 18th book in the series sustains the same high-quality storytelling, historical detail, nuances of character, and compulsively readable adventure as all its predecessors – perhaps surpasses them. Conan Doyle had his occasional off-days; but when has Patrick O’Brian ever missed his stays? Conan Doyle so tired of Holmes that he killed his hero off; only death prevented O’Brian from completing a 21st Aubrey-Maturin adventure. Some comparison!
All right, I’ve just written four paragraphs in response to a single sentence-fragment on the front cover of this book. So I’ll have to be brief in explaining why I think you might enjoy The Yellow Admiral. As Jack Aubrey moves up the Royal Navy’s list of post-captains, only death or disgrace can prevent him, in the course of time, from becoming an Admiral. It is simply a matter of seniority. However, a senior captain in bad odor with the government – for example, because of political stands he has taken as a Member of Parliament – runs the risk of being “yellowed.” Which is to say, he could be formally promoted as an Admiral, but not assigned a command – a disgrace tantamount to being cashiered out of the service.
Jack Aubrey now faces this unpleasant prospect, thanks to the probability that the war will end soon and put most of the navy out of work, to say nothing of the political enemies Jack has made both in Parliament and in the Admiralty. One of his deadliest enemies is Admiral Lord Stanraer, who commands the blockade of Brest, in which Jack serves. Under the advice of naval intelligence head Sir Joseph Blaine, Stephen Maturin urges his friend to consider an alternative that may save his reputation and his career. Reluctantly, Jack agrees to accept a temporary suspension from the Royal Navy and the command of a hydrographic survey ship off the coast of Chile. This, in turn, will give Stephen an opportunity to lend covert support to Chile’s struggle for independence from Spain.
Between these developments, Jack and Stephen spend a good deal of time on land. This gives Jack an opportunity to inform Stephen (and us) of how the partitioning and enclosing of the common lands in the early 19th century radically changed the British way of life. It enables us to witness a crisis in Jack’s marriage, an idyllic moment in Stephen’s family life (though with a foreshadowing of tragedy to come), a brilliant spy caper that may have you cheering aloud, and a spectacular, bare-fisted boxing match that has unexpectedly wide-ranging consequences.
The other half of the story takes place on the water, where Jack bears up nobly under the vicious enmity of his commanding officer; Stephen carries out cutting-edge (for his time) medical maneuvers, as well as a crucial, intelligence-related rendezvous; and Jack’s ship Bellona plays a decisive (but historically unsung) role in a shoot-out with French blockade-runners. Alas, Napoleon’s surrender forces Jack to commit to an entirely different lifestyle afloat – sailing without midshipmen, marines, or the Articles of War – for the first time in some twenty years. But take heart; in the final pages news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba reaches Jack and Stephen in the middle of a family pleasure cruise, promising at least one more moment of wartime glory in Book 19, The Hundred Days.