The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian (1994) 351. p

After seventeen books Patrick O’Brian finally runs out of fiscal and political excuses to keep Captain Jack Aubrey from climbing the career ladder any further. Returning from a four-book mission which ultimately saw he and Stephen Maturin circumnavigate the globe from west to east, Aubrey finds himself promoted to the rank of commodore and placed in charge of a squadron to disrupt the (now illegal) slave trade off West Africa.

Despite the title, this is very much Maturin’s book. He learned of the birth of his daughter Bridget several books ago, in letters received in New South Wales, but meets her now for the first time as he returns to England; now in the care of Clarissa Oakes, as Stephen’s fiery wife Diana has once again absconded for emotional reasons. Bridget is surely at least three years old now; strict chronology is not the series’ strong suit, having been stuck in an ongoing 1812 or 1813 for some six or seven books now, like M*A*S*H* taking eleven years to cover a three-year war. In any case, Maturin is dismayed to realise that his daughter is autistic (the word isn’t used, but to a modern reader it’s obvious) and one of the more heartening sequences of the entire series is when it becomes clear that Stephen’s monoglot Irish manservant Padeen has a particular gift for communing with such children, and Bridget begins to speak to other people for the first time, but only in Irish. Echoes of espionage plots past soon come back to haunt Maturin, however, and he’s obliged to escort Clarissa, Padeen and Bridget to the safety of his relatives in Spain before carrying on to join Jack en route to West Africa.

This book is ultimately another welcome adventure with well-loved characters, even if Jack has been raised to a less exciting middle management position: a story of slavery and marital discord, of yellow fever and Irish revolutionary fervour. There’s a touch of deus ex machina to the conclusion, and even if I didn’t know there are only three books left in this vast series, I might nevertheless conclude that it was past its prime. But being past your prime as an Aubrey-Maturin novel still means you’re excellent.