The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977) 298 p.
HMS Surprise was the third book in the Aubrey-Maturin series and the first one that I felt really gave a hint as to why the series is so well-regarded. It was a solid novel, beautiful in many ways, greater than the sum of its parts; a novel which went beyond the naval adventure genre and could really be considered literature.
The Mauritius Command, then, is a bit of a step back. Jack Aubrey is now living in a cottage in Hampshire, happily married and the father of twin girls, but itching for service again. He is soon lucky enough to be given the temporary posting of Commodore, sent to Cape Town and given a small squadron of ships to command and orders to capture Reunion and Mauritius from the French. This is based on a real naval campaign, and from what I understand most of the action follows history quite closely: individual battles, landings, scuttlings, wrecks, etc.
You’ll forgive me if I say that I can imagine O’Brian having great fun with a detailed map, pushing little labelled ships around, like Reverend Lovejoy playing with his trains. As always, I concede that I have no right to complain about this, but these protracted naval battles are the thing I find least interesting about the Aubrey-Maturin series, and The Mauritius Command is the least interesting instalment since Master and Commander. It has its moments: Stephen’s zoological expeditions on the islands, discussions amongst the two protagonists about capital punishment, a particularly gruesome end to an unlikeable but ultimately sympathetic captain. But The Mauritus Command is mostly tacking and yawing and breeching and squadrons, etc ad infinitum. I didn’t dislike it, but I was ready for it to be over by the last fifty pages or so.