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The Hundred Days by Patrick O’Brian (1998) 281 p.

The Hundred Days is a good book, just like every Aubrey-Maturin book is a good book, but it has two gigantic elephants in the room I want to discuss and I cannot do that without spoilering the entire series. My opinion on the novel itself its that it’s another chapter in the brilliant, excellent, genius etc long-running metanovel that is the Aubrey-Maturin series. There you go, done and dusted. If you haven’t already read The Hundred Days then stop reading now.

So: at this point O’Brian was steadily cranking Aubrey-Maturin novels out at about one every year or two, and had only just relinquished what he called his “1812b” – a permanent frozen timescape that allowed his characters to sail around the world on adventures, their children growing older, their careers and relationships progressing, while the Napoleonic wars themselves remained frozen in amber. (O’Brian later said that had he know to begin with that Master and Commander would spark such a voluminous series, he would’ve started it far earlier than 1800.)

The Yellow Admiral ended with Napoleon’s escape from Elba; The Hundred Days ends with his final defeat at Waterloo, and with it, the end of the Napoleonic wars entirely. It’s a decision which suggests O’Brian either felt it was time to begin wrapping the series up, or felt he could no longer plausibly draw out that period. Thomas Cochrane – the real-life captain who served as the inspiration for Aubrey – spent his career after the war leading the Chilean colonial navy in its rebellion against the Spanish, and O’Brian has for several books now laid the groundwork for his fictional hero to continue following Cochrane’s path.

This makes one wonder whether O’Brian intended to write another five or ten or twenty books in that vein, or whether he might only write a few more before concluding the series. In actual fact he passed away in 2000, so there’s only one and a half books remaining – Blue at the Mizzen and The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey, published posthumously in 2004 and which I understand effectively ends mid-paragraph. It makes for an odd reading experience, to have the novel end with a triumphant victory and conclusion to the wars which have marked the series’ entire backdrop, with a relatively short way to go until the end of the series itself.

But the really odd part about The Hundred Days – one which will come as a shock to every faithful reader of the series – is the two deaths, and the sudden and rather unnecessary nature of them. Both are quite different, in their inherent nature and in their execution.

Diana’s is relayed to us second-hand, by chatty observers watching the Surprise come into harbour in the opening chapter; by the time we see Stephen and Jack it is clear they have learned of it off-screen. There is some perfunctory third-hand reference to it, but Maturin’s internal thoughts allude to his wife’s untimely demise perhaps only three or four times across the course of the novel. I found this bafflingly – almost callously – surprising, since O’Brian expertly detailed Stephen’s heartbreak in previous books merely from losing Diana to another man. It makes more sense when you understand that O’Brian’s own wife died while he was writing the manuscript, but even so, it felt fundamentally wrong in a way that nothing in the series has thus far.

Bonden’s death – which comes in a relatively minor action in the last 15 pages – is equally shocking and sudden. Obviously this is different from Diana’s because he is a sailor on a man o’ war, a soldier of sorts, and unexpected death is part of his profession. But I don’t recall O’Brian ever before killing off a major character due to the vagaries of war excepting those who had been introduced in the very same book. So Bonden’s death also feels like a reaction to the passing of O’Brian’s wife playing out on the page; had he instead desired to drive home some of the reality of war, confining it solely to Bonden seems an odd choice, especially this late in the game. (Though I suppose there’s something poetical about having him die in what might possibly be the very final hostile action of a decades-long war.)

The Aubrey-Maturin series is so marvellously written, so incredibly well-realised, that it often doesn’t feel like fiction at all. Even when Jack’s career is stymied by coincidence and he’s conveniently kept away from a promotion that would land him at a desk; even when the stars always align and our heroes are saved by last-minute turns of fortune; even as the books steadily become historical romance rather than historical fiction; even through all that, they never feel fictional, if you get what I mean. I never felt like I could see the cogs turning. But the deaths in The Hundred Days are the first time I felt – really, properly felt – that I was reading fiction written by a human being who was making specific narrative decisions. That’s not to criticise those decisions: even aside from being a grieving widower, O’Brian long since earned the right to do whatever he pleased with his characters and with his series. But it’s still an unavoidably odd aspect of reading The Hundred Days.

The other odd aspect is knowing that there are only one-and-a-half books to go, even as we set sail for a new phase of life in South America. That’s even less of a criticism – obviously O’Brian couldn’t predict his own passing – but viewed in totality, it would seem a more fitting ending for the series to conclude when the Napoleonic wars did. (It goes without saying, of course, that if O’Brian had lived to 2010 and written another ten books about Jack and Stephen in Chile I would’ve happily read every one of them.)

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