HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian (1973) 379 p.

I’ve been enjoying the Aubrey-Maturin series thus far, but this was the first instalment that gave me a real inkling into why the series is so loved; why writers and readers from Philip Reeve to Jo Walton to Christopher Hitchens don’t just recommend it, but rave about it. A series of novels, I suppose, has the same advantage that a TV series has over a film: you have a greater amount of time to spend with the characters, and become more comfortable and happy with them.

After returning to England from the naval action at the climax of Post-Captain, Dr. Stephen Maturin is disappointed to discover that his name has been dropped at a large and insecure meeting by a newly appointed member of the Admiralty who should have known better. This seemingly minor indiscretion sets off a chain of events (largely off-screen) which results in Maturin being captured and tortured by the French in Port Mahon (Jack’s old haunt from Master and Commander), necessitating a rescue mission. This sounds like the set-up for the entire book, but it’s actually done and dusted in the first hundred pages; the bulk of HMS Surprise is about a long voyage to Kampong in what was then Malaya, going via Brazil, South Africa and India – the first voyage in the series which takes us away from the familiar waters of Europe and plunges out into the broader oceans of the world.

HMS Surprise is my favourite of the series thus far, for a number of reasons. It leans far more heavily to the Maturin side of things (espionage, adventure, travel) than the Aubrey side of things (naval battles, ships, ladder-climbing, prize money). I know I have no right to complain about naval battles in a series of books about navy ships in the Napoleonic wars, but I was secretly pleased that not a single one took place in HMS Surprise, until right at the end when Aubrey has to defend a fleet of East India Company ships from attack. The novel works very well as a single adventure – not in the sense that you could read it as a stand-alone book, but in the sense that it feels like a well-contained little package, much like the long sea voyage it covers.

It’s also the first book in which I’ve been deeply impressed with O’Brian’s prose style. He’s always been a good writer, above and beyond what one might expect from naval historical fiction, but so many moments of HMS Surprise were well-captured enough to really stick out in my memory: Stephen standing at the edge of the water at an Indian funeral pyre; the lonely, feverish death of the ambassador on a nameless island at the edge of Sumatra; Stephen’s hateful duel and the cardiac surgery he performs upon himself with the help of a mirror; his horrible heartbreak on Madeira, walking alone up the slopes of the volcano to lie in the snow in the shadowed ridge.

One moment that particularly struck me was a sequence in which Stephen asks, in the middle of the Atlantic, to be rowed out to a rocky islet to inspect the birds there. No work is supposed to be performed on a Sunday, but he is loved enough by the crew that a lieutenant named Nicolls takes him out anyway, and they speak about the isolation of life at sea and Nicolls’ estrangement from his wife. He is miserable because he had no letters from her at Gibraltar, but Stephen says he had none either, because their own vessel likely overtook the mail ships, and reassures Nicolls that they will probably both have mail waiting for them in Rio. While they are on the islet a storm strikes, and Nicolls is washed out to sea and drowned. Later in the book, in Rio, Jack gives Stephen his letters. Stephen asks if there were any for Nicolls, to which Jack replies, “Nicolls? No, I don’t think so,” and the conversation immediately moves on to something else. It’s a subtle, easily overlooked, and terribly affective moment; the sort of thing O’Brian deftly accomplishes.

As I said: the best in the series so far, and I look forward to the next one, The Mauritius Command.

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