The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge.
I have been a Patrick O’Brain fan for some time, so I was perhaps primed to appreciate this book more than I otherwise might have been. But the exploits of Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, who seem a very unlikely pair of friends, are among my favourites. In Canada it seems a rare thing to encounter others who share my joy, and I am told that aside from me, only “old guys” read O’Brian’s nautical classics at the bookstore where I work. If that’s true, I’d like to contribute to a revival. These excellent nautical tales have received international acclaim for their historic accuracy, and they have directly contributed to the development of modern space opera. Many of the giants of that genre, such as David Weber, have acknowledged their debt to O’Brian, C.S. Forester and Joseph Conrad, the Grand Triumvirate of nautical adventure stories.
In The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey is appointed Commodore in command of the British Royal Navy’s fleet at Mauritius, which is an island very near to Cape Town that is occupied by the French. O’Brian based most of the events of the story on a real-life navy campaign during the Napoleonic Wars, including the outcome of battles, the ships involved, and many of the details. The small fleet is to blockade the French ships and protect England’s vital merchant marine. This mission is extremely challenging – Jack must proceed badly outnumbered, with outdated and smaller ships, and England’s closest supply port is almost a thousand miles’ sail away, while the French, of course, have the islands. This is Aubrey’s first fleet command and he struggles with his lack of experience in ways that directly complicate the plot. The task is made even more difficult and dangerous by the dangerous, notoriously stormy seas, and by the undermanned army garrison that is to support him in these aims, which is waiting for desperately-needed reinforcements. Jack’s command is fraught with great responsibility and little privilege, but his career might be made or broken on it, provided he survives. To up the stakes, Jack’s rather large immediate family, including wife and small twin girls, are entirely dependent upon his fortunes; and also thousands of miles away in England. The fleet’s brave and ingenious solutions form this novel’s riveting plotline.
One of the best parts about O’Brian’s series is that Aubrey and Maturin share equal billing as protagonists, and O’Brian successfully writes accordingly. In this novel Maturin plays an essential but mostly supporting role, having maneuvered to land his friend this command in the first place, and putting his considerable skills as a spy and a propagandist to work on Aubrey’s (and England’s) behalf.
I found this book to be one of the best of the series, filled with action, dramatic tension, sudden reversals, glorious triumphs and crushing defeats. If you enjoy military fiction, adventure, politics, historical fiction or even space opera, you really should put it on your list.