Hi. This is a board game blog. Yet, for the second time this month, there‘s a post about books: The first one was a guest post by book blogger Naty from Naty’s Book Shelf with book recommendations based on board game tastes. Here, the second one is about a series of historical novels – so at least you get the history fix you’ve come to expect on this blog.
We go back to the Age of Napoleon. France is fighting a coalition of European powers led by Britain. As Napoleon dominates the European continent, the only thing between his victorious army and Britain is the sea – and the ships that sail it. One of these ships is commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, an Englishman as ever he was. As he is about to take his first command, he makes the acquaintance of the penniless Irish-Catalan physician Stephen Maturin who signs up as the ship’s surgeon. Did I say the only thing between Napoleon and Britain is the Royal Navy, as personified by Jack Aubrey? – Not quite. Politics, diplomacy, and espionage also play their role, and Dr Maturin is a capable player in this game of shadows. So, Aubrey and Maturin take on Napoleon, and in the course of 20 novels (plus one unfinished fragment) sail all oceans, go ashore in every continent, sink enemy ships (and are defeated themselves), conduct stealthy spying, get married (not to each other), explore the rich worlds of foreign nature and culture (especially Maturin), run from law enforcement (especially Aubrey), and, most of all, have a deep friendship with one another. The books offer good adventure, but at the same time, a thickly described social world of the early 19th century at land, and, especially, sea.
The books were written by British novelist Patrick O’Brian. There is a movie adaption, Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World (with Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin), which is pretty good. Yet, I am still hoping that Aubrey and Maturin will at some point get a TV series – the best way to deal with the long story arcs (one voyage around the world takes five or so novels) and the short, often comic, episodes (for example, Stephen adopting a pet sloth) alike. One can dream…
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Aubrey-Maturin novels:
A new start for Jack Aubrey: After having been expelled from the Navy for alleged stock market fraud, he captains a privateer… excuse me, takes letters of marque… which Stephen, now rich from an inheritance, has bought. Slowly, the spirit comes back to Jack as his old piratical prize-making instincts re-awaken. The new crew – many of whom have never served on a man-of-war – provides much humor. Stephen is, for once, not busy with espionage, but instead grappling with his marital woes and laudanum – and the climax of the story involves both.
Here the aforementioned stock market fraud takes place. As Jack is an honorable man (and rather gullible on land), he did not do it, but rather was framed for it. Much of the story deals with first the crime (and Jack’s unwitting part in it), and then with the trial and punishment – and how it turns into a triumph for Jack. Stephen is at the same time trying to prove Jack’s innocence and pursuing a juicy bit of intelligence about a previous acquaintance. An excellent book about friendship in a tough situation.
Jack and Stephen want just one thing: Leave New South Wales and its mixture of brutal government (instigating clashes between the officers and men) and anti-Irish fervor (which gets Stephen into trouble). However, when the ship is out at sea, they realize that one of the younger officers has smuggled out a convict from the penal colony – an enigmatic young woman, who is bound to attract the attention of several of the men. No other book in the series makes so good on the premise of the characters being confined to a small ship, unable to avoid each other. And Clarissa, the escapee, is not just a plot device, but a complex and compelling character in her own right.
Aubrey and Maturin are back in the Mediterranean where they first met. For the first half, slow blockade duty off the shores of Toulon allows to showcase how Jack masters (once again) a new ship and its crew. We also get an introduction to the politics of the Mediterranean, mostly via an interesting new supporting character, the orientalist Professor Graham. This comes in handy in the second half of the book, when Jack and Stephen are tasked with ensuring the support of some quarrelling city states for Britain – a masterpiece of political fiction.
I think H.M.S. Surprise is a common choice for the best Aubrey-Maturin book. The series is popular for the variety of experiences it contains, and this instalment is one of the most varied. Before the main story even starts, Jack rescues a captured Stephen out of a French torture chamber, and then in England Stephen ensures Jack be freed from a debtors‘ prison. Afterward, Jack and Stephen sail to the Malayan peninsula in order to deliver a British ambassador there, through quiet days of everyday sailing stories as well as stormy gales. At a stop in Brazil on the way, Stephen adopts the aforementioned pet sloth, whose affection Jack buys by feeding it ale (Stephen: „Jack, you have debauched my sloth!“) Further on, Stephen explores the nature and culture of India, where he also spots his love interest Diana Villiers again. Duty takes Stephen and Jack further, and on their way back from Malaya, Jack has to organize the merchant ships of the China Fleet to defend against a squadron of French warships, while Stephen’s courting of Diana culminates in a duel with another suitor… H.M.S. Surprise has all the ingredients, and they are baked into something as delicious as any of Jack’s favorite puddings. Serve yourself.
So, there you have it – my top five. What is your favorite Aubrey-Maturin novel?
1. Jack to Stephen, after the latter has explained the difference between himself, a natural philosopher, and Graham, a moral philosopher: „So I suppose that you could be described as an immoral philosopher?“, to which Stephen replies: „Sure there may be some poor thin barren minds that would catch such a paltry clench, pothouse wits who might, if their beery genius soared so high, also call Professor Graham an unnatural philosopher.“