HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

HMS Surprise Do you love novels set at sea?

Do you know your topsail from your mainsail?

Do you find descriptions of sea battles exciting and easy to understand?

I would answer NO to all three of those questions, so you may be wondering why I am continuing to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. The answer is that while, yes, most of the action takes place at sea and there are certainly a lot of nautical terms and quite a few sea battles, the series has so much more to offer than that. So let me ask three more questions.

Do you love novels with strong, complex, nuanced characters?

Do you like to be swept away to fascinating and exotic locations?

When you read historical fiction, do you like the setting to feel accurate and the language authentic?

Now you see why I’m happy to struggle through the naval terminology and the occasional engagement between enemy ships; HMS Surprise has all of the qualities I’ve just mentioned above and more. There’s adventure (including a dramatic rescue scene, a duel and a storm), a long voyage during which we visit Brazil, India and Madeira, romantic rivalries, witty dialogue and humour – where else would you find a line like “Jack, you have debauched my sloth!” – and descriptions of life aboard a navy frigate that are so interesting and detailed even a landlubber like me can appreciate them.

This is the third book in the series and although it is my favourite so far, I would recommend reading both Master and Commander and Post Captain first. I think it’s important to start at the beginning so that you can watch the friendship develop between Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and physician, naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin and so you know the background to their relationships with other characters, particularly the two women in their lives, Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers. I’m definitely finding the books more and more enjoyable now that I’m familiar with the characters and with Patrick O’Brian’s writing style.

I realise I haven’t said very much about the plot of this particular instalment, but I’m not sure that it’s really necessary. It’s probably enough to know that Jack, whose marriage plans have been put on hold as he’s in debt again, has been given the job of escorting a British ambassador to the East Indies, while Stephen, who is accompanying him, has learned that the woman he loves is in India and is determined to see her – even if it means he risks having his heart broken. To go into any further detail would mean giving too much of the story away (I always find it difficult to know how much to say about books that are part of a series) so I’ll leave it there.

The Mauritius Command will be next for me and this time I’ll try not to leave such a long gap between books. I was shocked when I discovered that it was August 2013 when I read Post Captain! Meanwhile I’m reading Temeraire by Naomi Novik, which I’ve seen described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons and which I’m counting as my first book for the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge.

15 thoughts on “HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

  1. Yvonne says:

    I read part of this series years ago and sadly don’t remember much about the books only that I enjoyed them. Have you read any of Frederick Marryat’s nautical novels? His are also set during the Napoleonic Wars.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read anything by Marryat apart from The Children of the New Forest but I’ll make a note to look out for his nautical books. Thanks!

  2. Lisa says:

    This is also my favorite in the series, not least because of the debauched sloth! I hope you are enjoying Temeraire too. I was a bit dubious but was hooked in the first chapter.

    • Helen says:

      I was dubious about Temeraire too but it’s much better than I thought it would be. I wasn’t hooked in the first chapter, but I was in the second!

  3. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    These are books I’ve always intended to read and never quite got around to it. You’ve brought them back to my attention, so maybe next week when I’m allowing myself some reading time I shall plunge in…

  4. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I think I saw a film of one of the books a while back, which reminded me that I have one of Patrick O’Brian’s books – The Yellow Admiral, a nephew gave it to me years ago, and I’ve never read it. After seeing the film I meant to dig out the book and read it – still haven’t got round to it. But maybe I should wait and start with Master and Commander.

    • Helen says:

      Starting at the beginning with Master and Commander worked for me, but maybe you could still get into the series if you started with a later book. I think The Yellow Admiral is from near the end of the series – it will be a long time before I get to that one!

  5. Jenny says:

    I sometimes think people ought to start with this one and then go back to the first two to get the back story, as HMS Surprise is (in my opinion) irresistible. But then I have read the whole series three times! I love Jack and Stephen as dearly as personal friends, and am so glad you’re enjoying these books.

    • Helen says:

      I always like to read a series in order if possible so I can see the characters and storylines develop (and to avoid spoiling the earlier books for myself) but I can also understand that it might be a good idea to start with one of the best. I’m impressed that you’ve read them all three times!

  6. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I loved The children of the New Forest – one of the kids books that I refused to part with.

    • Helen says:

      I would probably never have given these books a chance if it hadn’t been for seeing other bloggers speak so highly of them. Nautical books don’t usually appeal to me at all but this series is the exception!

  7. Small Review says:

    I feel the same way you do about this series. I’m not really interested in the naval stuff, but the characters make it for me. The sloth scenes, Stephen’s rats, the girl with the bracelet, the bear costume in Post Captain, there are so many funny, heartbreaking, touching, and fun scenes in this series. I’ve read through book five, but it has been taking me years to get that far. I’m not sure why I’m reading them so slowly, but it’s also nice to know there’s always another book in the series waiting for me.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the sloth scene and the scene with the bear costume! It’s taking me a long time to get through this series too – I’ve still only read the first three books, though I do hope to start the next one soon.

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