This was my second Aubrey/Maturin book, and I chose it because this was how the plot description went: “Commissioned to rescue Governor Bligh of Bounty fame, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and surgeon Stephen Maturin sail the Leopard to Australia with a hold full of convicts. Among them is a beautiful and dangerous spy – and a treacherous disease that decimates the crew.”
Holy shit, look at all that stuff! Mutineers! Sexy lady spies! Plagues! What isn’t to like here?
First, a few corrections to the slightly misleading synopsis: although we spend a lot of time discussing Admiral Bligh in the opening chapters, he’s basically forgotten as soon as we get on the ship, and we never actually get to meet him; the sexy lady spy doesn’t do anything except have a boring affair with a crewman and write some letters (which are promptly intercepted and decoded by Maturin with no effort, because Maturin is awesome); and the disease is syphilis. Because if the ship is going to have lady convicts on board, one of them is going to sleep with the entire crew and spread it all over the damn place. Ladies, amirite? Okay, to be fair, there’s also a lot of scurvy-related disease going around (it’s not a very fun ship), but people mostly complain about the venereal disease.
So yes, the synopsis was a bit misleading. But wait: yes, we don’t get to meet Bligh. But that’s because the Leopard gets waylaid en route to Australia by a vastly larger and better-armed Dutch ship, and a drawn-out chase and sea battle ensues, when Jack Aubrey has to try to beat a ship with dozens more guns and hundreds more hands than he has. And after the battle, the Leopard strikes an iceberg and springs a leak, and Aubrey has to find land in the Arctic while his supplies dwindle and his ship slowly sinks, and it gives us this great, touching scene where Aubrey writes a letter to his wife explaining their dire situation: “It was when he came to this that the shift between himself and the present broke down, vanished entirely. It had been with him ever since that remote day of the Waakzaamheid, this sense of observing the world from a distance, and of moving, functioning, more through duty than intimate concern; and the moment of its breaking, of his coming wholly to life, was exquisitely painful.”
It’s a lot more interesting that anything Bligh could have provided, I’m pretty sure.
And the lady spy (Louisa Wogan) has a more subdued, but fascinating storyline. The unspoken attraction between her and Maturin is very subtly and sweetly done, and did I mention that he steals and decodes her letters? Because, oh yeah, Stephen Maturin is totally a spy. I knew that this was a plot point in the series, having read about it in other people’s reviews, but this was the first time I got to see the adventures of Stephen Maturin, Surgeon Spy! for myself. It’s pretty cool. While not exactly edge-of-your-seat thrilling – like I said, the most exciting thing that happens is a bunch of letter-writing and decoding – the subtle way that Maturin manipulates events and people without their realization is really cool to watch. In fact, it’s so subtle that I still don’t really understand the mechanics of all the spy-drama, but in the same way that I can’t understand a single word of ship lingo, my lack of comprehension didn’t diminish my enjoyment of watching Maturin do his thing.
As for the trouble-causing ladies spreading syphilis all over the ship, it goes over about as well as you can imagine. But I suppose we can’t have everything.
Verdict: four out of five stars