By Patrick O’Brian
It’s been almost two years since I returned to the most popular 50-Booker series since, if you recall, I was somewhat disappointed in Post Captain. I was spurred back on the horse (or more appropriately, ship) when Olman asked if I had a copy of the third Aubrey-Maturin book since a few Ramblekrafters were at the developmental stage for their upcoming Beat To Quarters game. And there was no way I was going to let Olman read the next installment before me! Good thing I distracted him with a sweet Hornblower hardback ;-)
HMS Surprise proved to be a significant improvement over Post Captain in terms of structure, plot and engagability, though it shared similarities in lots of dramatic exposition and character development for the bulk of the novel, leaving the exciting battle between the East India Company’s China Fleet and a French squadron (with the HMS Surprise caught in between!) towards the end.
At the beginning of the story, Stephen’s cover in Spain gets blown due to an inept person in a high political position. As a result, Stephen is caught and tortured by the French and then subsequently rescued by Jack. What's more, the Polychrest crew lose out on their prize money ( the capture of the Spanish gold ships at the end of Post Captain) due to some legal loophole so Jack can’t pay off his debts and marry Sophia. But thanks to Stephen’s fortuitous connection to Sir Joseph, some reward money is acquired for Jack so he is rescued from the sponging house and given a new post on the HMS Surprise, the very ship in which Jack spent his youth as a midshipman .
The newly crewed HMS Surprise makes sail for the East Indies with the task of delivering a rather delicate and seasick-prone British envoy to the Sultan of Kampong. Along the way, the HMS Surprise languishes in the doldroms, suffers from mild scurvy, consumes a fair amount of rats, picks up some citrus fruit in Brazil (as well as a three-toed sloth – “the most affectionate, discriminating sloth you can imagine!” according to Stephen), encounters a devastating storm around the Cape of Good Hope, and stops in India to refit. Of course, while in Calcutta, Stephen schemes to meet his old flame Diana Villiers, now mistress to the uber-wealthy merchant Canning.
It doesn’t end there. Lots of juicy things happen which I’d rather not summarize, so you’ll just have to read this installment for yourself and see. It’s interesting to note that the film adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World incorporates a few minor events from this book, such as J.A.'s initials carved in the top masthead of the HMS Surprise and Stephen’s DIY operation as he removes a bullet lodged in his own rib.
And the final battle at the end was worth it too. Perhaps I’m getting better at comprehending O’Brian’s writing, or O’Brian’s writing has improved in clarity, but this was the first time I could clearly follow the bl0w-by-blow account of the HMS Surprise’s run-in with the formidable French squadron, not to mention Captain Aubrey’s risky collaboration with the merchant ships of the East India Company’s China Fleet to deceive the aged yet cunning Admiral Linois. And it was pretty damn exciting and well worth waiting for! It took an effort not to describe any of it -- so much better to just read it for yourself, but I will say that it was another capital game of naval subterfuge.
As usual, there are many humourous and lighthearted gems scattered throughout the book.
He came forward, showing his open hands, and said again, ‘Captain Melbury?’
‘Who are you, sir?’ asked Jack.
‘Joan Maragall, sir,’ he whispered in the clipped English of the Minorcans, very like that of Gibraltar. ‘I come from Esteban Domanova. He says, Sophia, Mapes, Guarnerius.’
Melbury Lodge was the house they had shared; Stephen’s full name was Maturin y Domanova; no one else on earth knew that Jack had once nearly bought a Guarnerius. He un-cocked his pistol and thrust it back.
‘Bonden,’ cried Stephen, ‘take pen and ink, and write – ‘
‘Write, sir?’ cried Bonden.
‘Yes. Sit square to your paper, and write: Landsdowne Crescent – Barret Bonden, are you brought by the lee?’
‘Why, yes, sir; that I am – fair broached-to. Though I can read pretty quick, if in broad print; I can make out a watch-bill.’
‘Never mind. I shall show you the way of it when we are at sea, however: it is no great matter – look at the fools who write all day long – but it is useful, by land…’
Jack stepped on to the western rail and looked down into the water… ‘Come on, then,’ he said, diving in.
The sea was warmer than the air, but there was refreshment in the rush of bubbles along his skin, the water tearing through his hair, the clean salt taste in his mouth. Looking up he saw the silvery undersurface, the Surprise’s hull hanging down through it and the clean copper near her water-line reflecting an extraordinary violet into the sea: then a white explosion as Stephen shattered the mirror, plunging bottom foremost from the gangway, twenty feet above. His impetus bore him down and down, and Jack noticed that he was holding his nose: he was holding it still when he came to the surface, but then relinquished it to strike out in his usual way – short, cataleptic jerks, with his eyes tightly shut and his mouth clenched in savage determination.
Babbington looked wretchedly from one to the other, licked his lips and said, ‘I ate your rat, sir. I am very sorry, and I ask your pardon.’
‘Did you so?’ said Stephen mildly. ‘Well, I hope you enjoyed it. Listen, Jack, will you look at my list, now?’
‘He only ate it when it was dead,’ said Jack.
‘It would have been a strangely hasty, agitated meal, had he ate it before,’ said Stephen…
Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’
[Stephen] ‘… You must write that letter, Jack; for you are to consider, Sophie is the beauty of the world; whereas although you are tolerably well-looking in your honest tarpaulin way, you are rather old and likely to grow older; too fat, and likely to grow even fatter – nay, obese.’ Jack looked at his belly and shook his head. ‘Horribly knocked about, earless, scarred: brother, you are no Adonis. Do not be wounded,’ he said, laying his hand on Aubrey’s knee, ‘when I say you are no Adonis.’
[Diana] ‘But it was kind of him to send his compliments, his best compliments, to a fallen woman.’
[Stephen] ‘What stuff you talk, Villiers,’ he said.
[Diana] ‘I have fallen pretty low for an odious little reptile like that Perkins to take such liberties. Christ, Maturin, this is a vile life. I never go out without the danger of an affront: and I am alone, cooped up in this foul place all the time. There are only half a dozen women who receive me willingly; and four of them are demireps and the others charitable fools – such company I keep! And the other women I meet, particularly those I knew in India before – oh, how they know how to place their darts!...
[Jack] ‘… A most capital dinner, upon my word. The duck was the best I ever tasted.’
[Stephen] ‘I was sorry to see you help yourself to him a forth time: duck is a melancholy meat. In any case the rich sauce in which it bathed was not at all the thing for a subject of your corpulence.'