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High standard maintained by O'Brian
on 19 June 2001
This impressive follow up to the very good, 'Master & Commander', follows the mixed fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey, the good natured and garrulous Royal Naval commander and his good friend, the calm and introverted ships surgeon and sometime secret agent Stephen Maturin, as they try to readjust to peace with Bonaparte's France following the Treaty of Amiens.
After indulging in the social life expected of country gentlemen and tying themselves in emotional knots over women in the shape of the graceful and beautiful Sophie Williams and the feisty and attractive Diana Villiers, they are forced to flee England when Jack unexpectedly finds himself in penury following the trickery of his prize agent and the successful appeal by two 'neutrals' (captured ships) whose money he had banked on..
Throughout the book, the naval action is interspersed with three other elements that in effect bind the novel together.
Firstly Jack's financial plight, that sees him living in dread of being arrested for debt. In one riotous episode, Jack is nearly apprehended during a celebration at an inn for Pullings promotion.
Secondly the romantic entanglements of both Jack and Stephen, who find affairs of the heart much more problematic than affairs at sea.
The last binding element is Stephen's spying missions for the Admiralty. These are always undertaken without Jack's knowledge and see him travelling throughout Spain trying to gauge Spain's intentions and the likelihood of a bid for Catalan independence.
An initially ponderous book, that is hard going for the first one hundred pages, it nevertheless comes alive in time to join its predecessor as another fine example of historical fiction set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Let there be no mistake, this is historical fiction from the top drawer. O'Brian's detail and ability to capture the ambience of the period is quite without equal, to all intents and purposes, in both dialogue and attitudes, you are transported nearly two hundred years into the past where as a 'fly on the wall' you can view the adventures of our two incompatible but inseparable heroes. At times the realism of the naval jargon, as orders and instructions are flying to and fro, can leave one feeling a little bewildered, much like a landsman coerced onto Jack's ship, however O'Brian never leaves you in any doubt about the result of all these nautical discourses.
The comedic element is also present. Stephen's inability to observe the rigid naval code of proper etiquette and behaviour is a constant theme in this book. His insistence, for example, on bringing a hive of bees on board the crack frigate 'Lively'whilst dressed in an odd woollen garment is very amusing. I also had to laugh at the drunken antics of the young midshipman Parslow who addressed Jack as 'Goldilocks' on the quarter-deck.
All in all an impressive book, a more than worthy follow-up to the groundbreaking 'Master & Commander' and a book that confirms O'Brian as one of the leaders in the field of historical fiction. If you have read 'Post Captain', having previously read, 'Master & Commander', then it is too late, you are by now most definitely hooked and all O'Brian's other Aubrey and Maturin novels lie in wait.'Where away ?' is the nearest bookshop ?