And the world be upside down: a review of The Nutmeg of Consolation


There’s an odd thing that happens with a long series. It happens regardless; any medium is just as susceptible as a series of novels. I am a big fan of science fiction as evidenced with the excerpts of my own work I’ve posted on this site, and the thriller genre. I also enjoy dabbling occasionally in historical fiction – although you couldn’t tell it was just dabbling as this is the eighth book by Patrick O’Brian in the Aubrey/Maturin series I have read. I’ve read my fair share of Star Trek and Doctor Who novelizations and other books in my day as well. Until his passing, I also read every one of the Jack Ryan books Tom Clancy wrote (although I stopped when the ghost writers and follow on artists took over after his death). With each of them I’ve seen this odd situation creep in to each book. It happens with television series as well.

This odd thing is a dichotomy that develops with the work and our relationship with it.

Although, as I mentioned, The Nutmeg of Consolation is the eighth book in the Aubrey/Maturin series I’ve read it is only the third I’ve reviewed (along with Treason’s Harbour and The Reverse of the Medal). This chapter is also only the fourteenth of the twenty one books Patrick O’Brian penned recounting the tale of our intrepid Napoleonic era duo, their shipmates, and their attendants. Continuing with a trend, the book primarily follows the exploit of the intrepid Doctor Maturin with the good Post Captain Aubrey playing a more supportive role in this story.

Having apparently been shipwrecked at the end of the previous novel, (one of the disadvantages of not owning a complete set of the novels is the surprising jumps taken by the characters) the good doctor has to use his expert marksmanship and naturalist skills to provide meat for his shipmates. It is this skill that both almost condemns the poor members of the expedition to possible disaster and eventual proves their salvation as they go from being decimated – in the more traditional and literal sense rather than the modern sense – by Malayan pirates and then, consequently, saved by merchants in a Chinese Junk. This fortuitous rescue moves the displaced sailors back to British territory where they are able to obtain a new vessel. The new vessel, the titular Nutmeg of Consolation, allow them to reunite with the Surprise and continue the diplomatic mission to Australia, where Stephen hopes to hear word from his wife Diana Villiers and news of the impending birth of their child.

Now safely ensconced at the penal colony, Captain Aubrey sets out to once again refit his beloved Surprise, this time with the full weight of the Royal Navy and his position as a Member of Parliament behind him. Even so it take some back channel dealings from Maturin to ensure the ship is outfitted in time. In pursuit of his backroom dealings, Maturin also finds time to develop a relationship with a local author, attempt to facilitate the escape of a former shipmate condemned to the horrors of life as a penal colony inmate, both completely lose and regain his former independent financial means, and get poisoned by a platypus. Fortunately he manages to recover from the poisoning right before the end of the book and is able to share the good news of the birth of his daughter with his best friend. All in all, a rather normal outing in the annals of the series.

This is where the dichotomy of any long running series reveals itself.

As I mentioned in my last O’Brian review in The Reverse of the Medal, authors, directors, and producers of long running stories – whether radio, TV, books, or movies – eventually need to do something to keep the stories fresh for their audience or risk losing them to the newest shiny bangle that comes around. This is mainly for the regular enjoyer of the show or the casual follower. Creators don’t need to worry so much about the diehard fans. They’ll overlook any potential flaw or plot hole created over the course of the story; and will probably do so riding a broomstick, wearing pointed ears, and cursing in an Quenya (or high-elvish)tongue.

Personally, I count myself on the far side of the regular enjoyer or the lower level fan of most sci-fi I follow. I’ve seen just about every episode of every Star Trek show and seen all put the first film in the theatre (I’m not quite old enough to boast of that), and have been following Doctor Who for a good 30 plus years.

The dichotomy I find myself falling into, at this level of following a long running series at least, is that although I really want to see some change in the character; some growth to their reactions or arc in the way they feel, I still find myself enjoying the book when – if I’m being honest – nothing much really happens. Sure, they characters DO things. They have adventures, meet new people, or travel from one place to another. In reality though, not much changes in either the world or in themselves. As a consequence, I find not much changes in me. There is no realization, no cathartic moment, no uplifting of spirit, or crushing sense of ennui.

And I find sometimes… I’m really okay with that. When a story is well written; the characters full – or at least full enough – you feel comfortable, there is real enjoyment in that comfort. What I have found with the Aubrey/Maturin novels is that although I hope something happens, and on the rare occasion something does, or I’m surprised (which I often am skipping several books as I have), I am no less satisfied at the end of the novel when I find my friends the same. Something many of us forget as we read and review is sometimes it’s alright to sit down with our friends over a glass of Madeira, or Port, or even Rum and just enjoy each others company for awhile.

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