Rich's Reviews > H.M.S. Surprise

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
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Jun 02, 12

Read in January, 2002

In praising Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books I am on well-trodden ground. In a sense, it is superfluous to do so: so many people, of such varied and excellent taste, have praised these books to the skies that further lauds from the modest likes of me are hardly necessary. Still, I'm glad to add my words. These stories concern Jack Aubrey, a ship captain in the English Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and his great friend Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan doctor and spy who in the first book joins Jack's crew as ship doctor.

As H. M. S. Surpries opens, political machinations cost Jack his prize money (earned in the previous book0, and Stephen's cover in Spain is blown. As a result, and also because Stephen is scheming to see his lover Diana again (who has been taken by her keeper Richard Canning to India), Jack takes command of the aged frigate H.M.S. Surprise, and is sent to Cambodia (stopping in India) to deliver the new British envoy to the Sultan of Kampong.

Thus the setup for a long, wonderful, account of the voyage to the Orient and back. The pleasures of this book are remarkably varied: high comedy, such as the famous drunken sloth incident; high adventure, as the men of the Surprise battle not only the South Atlantic at its fiercest, but also the French; and bitter disappointment and even tragedy, in Stephen's seesaw relationship with Diana, as well as Stephen's involvement with a young Indian girl.

The pleasures of this book, however, are not restricted to a fine plot. The ongoing development of the characters of Jack and Stephen, and of their complex and fully described friendship, is a major achievement. In addition, the many minor characters are fascinating: the envoy Mr. Stanhope, Stephen's Indian friend, the various ship's officers and men, other ship captains, and so on. And O'Brian's depiction of the building of an effective crew, the relationship of captain to officers to men, is another fascinating detail, and something he revisits from book to book, as Jack encounters different crews in different circumstances. Finally, O'Brian is a fine writer of prose, with a faintly old-fashioned style, well poised to evoke the atmosphere of the time of which he writes to readers of our time, and consistently quotable, in his dry fashion.

Jack and Stephen are heroic in certain aspects of their characters, but they are both multi-faceted characters, with terrible flaws and endearing crotchets in addition to their accomplishments. And they truly come across to this reader as characters of their time, and not 20th Century people cast back into the past. Even Stephen's very contemporary racial and religious attitudes are well-motivated by his background, and expressed in language which reeks wonderfully of his time: "Stuff. I have the greatest esteem for Jews, if anyone can speak of a heterogeneous great body of men in such a meaningless, illiberal way."

I recommend all these books highly. It was with great difficulty the first time through the series that I restrained myself, upon finishing each book, from immediately starting in on the next one.
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