The Letter of Marque
by Patrick OBrian
Jack Aubrey is about to go back to sea, and in his beloved, sweet-sailing frigate Surprise
to boot. Yet the joy of life, which has been such a great part of his personality, has gone out. In the previous book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Reverse of the Medal
, Jack was convicted of a crime he did not commit, and stripped of his kings commission as a Royal Navy officer. Now, in this twelfth book of Patrick OBrian
s magnificent twenty-book novel of the ninteenth-century naval warfare and espionage, Jack is sailing as the captain of a private man-of-war also known as a privateer, or a letter of marque. The ship is owned by his friend Stephen Maturin, widely known as a great surgeon and naturalist, less widely known to be a highly efficient intelligence agent.
Their mission is quite modest: to train a new privateers crew, in preparation for a long and possibly perilous off the books mission to South America. But a series of heroic engagements with enemy ships brings in unexpectedly rich prizes. And while Jack struggles, against profound depression and agonizing setbacks, to be reinstated as a naval captain, Stephen faces his own personal crisis. His marriage to Diana Villiers seems to be wrecked beyond repair, yet he must face her one more time. And one of the few things he has to support him in this time of anxiety his precious laudanum is being secretly diluted by an opium-eating servant with nearly tragic results.
To me, the most moving passage in this novel was the one in which Stephen finds himself a passenger onboard the Leopard, on which he and Jack Aubrey had sailed in former days (see Desolation Island). Even for an incurable landlubber like Stephen, seeing his former ship even the horrible old Leopard sunk to such a degree (no pun intended) is breathtakingly sad. When the ships officers learn that Stephen was on board Leopard in former, more glorious days, they compel him to tell them about her adventures in a passage that had the bittersweet ring of mourners, begging the chairman of a wake to repeat favorite stories of the dearly departed.
As one may have come to expect from previous books in this series, there are pages of suspense, humor, exciting naval battles, political intrigues, sympathetic depictions of friendship, family ties, and marriage. OBrian is equally flawless when describing beautiful music, natural wonders, historic fashions and manners, and especially the peculiar and compelling characters of Aubrey and Maturin. A sense of foreboding throbs in the background of this story, like the unnerving Dies irae that Stephen plays on his cello one evening. And at the end of the story, you feel energized even propelled to enter the next adventure, titled The Thirteen-Gun Salute.
Recommended Age: 14+
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