My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Post Captain Jack Aubrey and Ships Surgeon, Warrant Officer and erstwhile Naval Intelligence Officer Dr. Stephen Maturin once again take sail in the Mediterranean in their ongoing quest to do all in their power to help overthrow the regime of the archfiend and scourge to Democratic freedom, the Emperor Napoleon. Having successfully foiled the French plans in the Ionian sea in the last novel, Aubrey and Maturin take some time to rest and refit themselves, their ship, and what remains of their crew on the island of Malta as they await the next assignment. Aubrey tries to revel in his recent victory but continues to be plagued by the money woes at home that drove him to sea again and his desire for a new frigate and a command against the Americans in the North Atlantic. Maturin has his hands full attempting to find the elusive and cleaver French spymaster Lesueur. What Maturin doesn’t yet realize is Lesueur has already found him and Lesueur’s plan against the good doctor is already in motion.
This is how we begin the ninth book in Patrick O’Brian‘s series and the sixth book in the series that I have read, Treason’s Harbour. I admit to having missed three of his books, Master and Commander, Desolation Island, and The Fortune of War. Although in my defense I did see Peter Weir’s 2003 movie starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, which should cover part of the stories I missed. Also, I was fortunate to get these books from my in-laws estate and haven’t been able to find inexpensive copies of the missing parts of the series.
But once again I digress from the review and quite a bit earlier then I usually do if I recall my other reviews correctly. Perhaps someone reading this would like to fact check me on that by going back and rereading my previous reviews. I would appreciate the correction. Back to the review now.
(Well that was a long aside as well as happening early in the review. Must be the longest aside I’ve done. Ahh well. Better get back to the review.)
Captain Aubrey purports to love the life of the sea and that of a British Naval Officer. He prides himself on his applied mathematical skill and ability to read a battle situation. Jack’s skill in deception is also admired and plays a keen role in some of his more daring exploits, as anyone who has read some of the books or seen the movie can attest to. However, Jack’s reason for going to sea are often tightly woven with his almost complete ineptitude on dry land. He often needs to run off and leave his problems with his wife Sophie and his, now three, children for years at a time due to his own inability to apply his consider mental skills to the skills needed to run a home. He places his trust in the wrong people. Either his lawyers, people in the Admiralty or even his own father. This is obviously not always the case. He occasionally runs off to save his best friend Stephen from the tight spots he often ends up in.
This is the reason he is in Malta now. A hold over from the last novel in the series, The Ionian Mission. Even though he was successful with his last mission – thanks mostly to the machinations of the good Doctor – he still does not have the prize money of the Captaincy he desires to get him out to the financial trouble he left poor Sophie with back in England. The bad luck seems to follow him on these latest adventures as well. The treason of the title affects his mission across Egypt and into the Red Sea to once again thwart the wretched French. Or at least try and thwart them. He fails in this mission through no fault of his own and even the final assignment of the book ends up with the loss of an Admiral and an ally in the Mediterranean.
These setbacks weigh heavily on the mind of our intrepid Captain. In this book he is further set back as well by his own friend as Dr. Maturin must pursue his own goals. These goals are in the greater service of England and the Royal Navy against the Tyrant Bonaparte but are not helpful to Lucky Jack.
Newly married Dr. Maturin pushes the boundaries of ethics in defense of his nation, or at least in defiance of the tyrant that he despises. It seems that this time Stephen is willing to go to almost any length to disrupt the plans of the French. Including impinging on not only his own good name but placing the name and potentially the life of his best friend on the line.
In order to discover the source of intelligence leaks coming out of Malta and hopefully use the leaks to sow false information, Stephan sets himself up in the minds of those in Malta as the lover of a beautiful woman. Laura Fielding is the wife of a British Naval officer that has been captured by the French. Lesueur threatens to kill the captured officer if Laura does not seduce the good Doctor and find out all he knows. Stephen turns the tables and discovers part of the leak by discovering Lesueur and his henchman. Stephen then uses Laura to feed Lesueur false information.The fact this tactic will also destroy Laura’s reputation, the reputation of the wife of a British Naval officer, and also potentially condemn the marriage of Dr. Maturin’s source does not dissuade Stephen in the least.
Neither Stephen not Jack are successful in their plans. Stephen misses a key link in the espionage chain and this costs his friend Jack several missions of great import. These include leading to the death of the Admiral formerly mentioned. The novel ends on a cliffhanger. Lucky Jack manages to escape the final trap laid by Lesueur and eliminate two French vessels, including avenging the fallen Admiral.
As always Patrick O’Brian’s prose flows smoothly. Despite the fact that his paragraphs literally run on for pages, sometimes three or more, they never seem too dense. Likewise, when he goes into detail regarding the rigging of the ship or the nautical terms and nuance utilized in describing the battles he never becomes overwhelming. Now, I have to admit to having a bit a of a naval background having been in the the U.S. Navy, but it was a modern navy. Nothing to do with sail or wind or current playing a role. A navy that utilizes gas turbines and nuclear power. A navy that can see far over the horizon thanks to communication and satellites that Jack Aubrey couldn’t even dream of but would, I hazard very little doubt, would love to have both . Although I think he might feel it would take some of the skill and fun out of the contest. I don’t think my short tenure in the U.S. Navy accounts for the terms not being confusing however. It likely has more to do with O’Brian’s skill. That and probably the fact that this is the sixth of his books I’ve read. It’s distinctly possible something is rubbing off on me.
The story is fun and brings a new aspect to the main characters. The creeping doubt that comes on as he starts to see fewer days ahead then he has seen behind. Stephen’s ruthlessness as he attempts to find and utilize the leak in his service. The hubris and doubt bring greater depth to the characters and expands on the world O’Brian has created. The only serious issue I have with the book is it feels very much like a middle book. The main points laid out in the first, the final conclusion to come in the final volume. We must get through a lot of meat in the story without a very large pay off. I felt the same with The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien or with The Empire Strikes Back. I personally don’t like a middle story and it takes a really great one for it to pay off for me. Of course part of the problem goes back to the fact I received this series as part of the library of my in-laws estate. The collection, as noted previously, is incomplete and unfortunately the, most probably, next part of the story The Far Side of the World is missing.