H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

Published by Norton

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian is the third volume in the ever-popular Aubrey/Maturin Chronicles. In the conclusion of the previous installment, Jack Aubrey not only attained the long-sought rank of post-captain (essential for an officer's hopes for promotion to flag rank), but had also captured several Spanish treasure ships. The prize money from that victory would free him from debt and thus from the risk of being imprisoned.

But all that is changing at the beginning of this volume. Because of the sheer enormity of the wealth aboard those galleons, the government does not want to follow the usual procedures for distributing the prize money. Instead they wish to make the entirity of the treasure a droit of the Crown. Suddenly Jack is no longer out of trouble, and worse yet, the loss of his incipient fortune endangers his planned marriage to the beautiful Sophie Williams, whose grasping mother will only permit her to marry a man who can clearly ensure her future wealth.

Now it is imperative for him to attain a new command, in order to bring in yet more prize money. He accepts the command of HMS Surprise, a ship familiar from his earliest seafaring days, but now growing old, and orders that will take him into the Indian Ocean to deliver a diplomat to a new assignment. In those days of sailing ships, such a trip was a long and perilous undertaking, involving as it did the uncertainties of wind and weather in fragile vessels with no means of communication farther than a spyglass could descry a signal hoist.

Before he can set off for the Indies, Jack must rescue his old friend Stephen Maturin from duress vile. Loose lips in an Admiralty Board meeting have compromised the talented surgeon's other profession as an intelligence agent. While on a mission, he is captured by the French and tortured as a spy. With a few of his most loyal men, Jack breaks into the French prison and liberates his friend, as well as many of their other victims.

As always, O'Brian serves up a fascinating yarn of adventure at sea. The images of India in the early days of Britain's second Empire will not fail to fascinate, and long-time readers will delight in the principal characters' reactions to their experiences.

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Review posted January 1, 2000

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