The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian (1989) 319 p.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are very much, at this point, episodic entries in one great long saga, and The Thirteen Gun Salute is perhaps the best demonstration of this so far. The previous entry, The Letter of Marque, ended with Aubrey and Maturin about to be dispatched to Latin America to foment rebellions in the various Spanish colonies; this novel indeed begins on that note, with themselves and their loyal followers (including the beloved Tom Pullings) departing on the Surprise, no longer with her HMS prefix now that she’s a privateer owned by Maturin. Within a hundred pages, however, at their Lisbon rendezvous, O’Brian upends that planned structure and instead has Aubrey and Maturin reassigned to the Diane and tasked with escorting a diplomat to the fictional Malaysian island of Pulo Prabang.

This is all done perfectly well, but serves as an example of the series’ unique structure. There is even a whole short story arc here, in which the Surprise, still on her original mission and only just south of Ireland, closes in on a smuggler, and in one of the nearer moments of the chase Stephen recognises a former comrade from the failed 1798 revolution who has now gone all-in with the French, as opposed to Stephen, who – like Orwell – disapproves of the British Empire while still acknowledging it, and indeed serving it, as the lesser evil compared to the contemporary tyranny emerging from the Continent. A very brilliant chapter revolves around Maturin’s personal torment as he questions what he will do in the event that the Surprise captures the Irish ship – knowing that his former comrade’s arrest would strike a blow to the French, but also despising informers – and even goes so far as to contemplate sabotaging the Surprise so that he won’t have to make such a decision. This sequence easily could have fit at the end of The Letter of Marque, but works just as well at the beginning of The Thirteen Gun Salute. It is an episode within an episode, as so many moments in these book are.

The same can be said of the book’s ending. The central bulk of The Thirteen Gun Salute is devoted to the mission in Malaysia, and it’s as good as always, particularly a peaceful diversion in which Maturin hikes up an extinct volcano to a Buddhist temple in the caldera and spends a week among the monks and the orangutans; there’s also an appropriate (if surprisingly abrupt and typically, O’Brianly, cryptic) conclusion brought upon two long-developed antagonists. But in the final thirty pages O’Brian unexpectedly drops our heroes into a classically unexpected life-or-death at sea scenario: the natural kind, that is, rather than an enemy action, in a scene which reminded me of the brilliant sequence in Desolation Island in which the Leopard strikes an iceberg and begins to sink in sub-Antarctic waters a thousand miles from anywhere. All hands on deck, every member of the crew working away at their emergency tasks, and their captain’s brain ticking away through every hour of a days-long slow-motion catastrophe to make critical evaluations and decisions. Like the opening hundred pages, it could’ve waited until the next book; but it works just as well here, and – unless I’m mistaken – actually serves as the first proper cliffhanger O’Brian has yet written. Considering this is the thirteenth book in a series which plainly became his life’s work some time ago, you have to admire that.