I already loved the earlier two books, but I this one topped them . I only hope I’ll be able to say the same for everyone of the upcoming 18 in the series. I understand now why so many Aubrey/Maturin fans consider this their favorite.
While the other two books in the series were set around Europe, in H.M.S. Surprise we take sail and head for more exotic lands. On a technicality, Aubrey is refused the prize and position promised him in the previous book, which would mean not only freedom from pressing debts, but being able to finally marry Sophie.
He’s eventually offered the captainship of the H.M.S. Surprise, with a condition: deliver the new British envoy to the East Indies, with a stop in India. This is not Jack ideal mission – everyone knows there’s almost no prize to be won in those waters – but there is hope: the possibility to take the ships sent by Napoleon to attack the valuable China Fleet.
The humor, the wit, the tragedy and amazing characterization that made the other two books so wonderful are also in H.M.S. Surprise, but O’Brian stepped up a notch. We already know the characters, so now he can start playing with them, putting them and their relationships to the test.
The fast change between the wider view and the detail that I loved before are also still there, making every sentence fresh and keeping you on your toes with a quick-changing pace. From Jack taking Stephen to see the initials he carved into the Surprise when he was only a midshipman, to the description of an India street, a deadly flash-storm or the details of Diana’s dress – what a delight every scene was.
I’ve read other books set in the sea, and seen many movies about it, but none was better than H.M.S. Surprise at showing me what it was like to be an 18th century sailor packed with hundreds of others in a tiny micro-cosmos. How delicate the balance that makes men obey orders, how volatile the sea around them, what frail creatures humans are with their constant and vital need for food and water! As Stephen Maturin puts it:
So full a ship, so close-packed a world, moving urgently along, surrounded by its own vacuum.
Patrick O’Brian is one of those authors that make me believe they wrote the book with my tastes in mind. His are the descriptions that move me, the romance that feels stronger because it’s about what’s not said, and the style of humor that tickles my little grey cells:
“I beg your pardon,” said Nicolls with an artificial smile. “I am afraid I lost the thread. What were you saying?”
“I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir — all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir — I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?”
You gotta love Maturin! It might not look like it at first, but H.M.S. Surprise is also a very moving book, mostly because of the focus on his (internal) life. Maturin’s such a complex character. How very ingenious of O’Brian to let him develop slowly over the series.
Only Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian have ever make me stop reading, turn to my boyfriend and say “Damn, he’s/she’s good!”