The Surgeon’s Mate is the seventh novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. Every time I review one of these books I say that I’m not going to leave such a long gap before picking up the next one, but then I get distracted and before I know it two or three years have passed by! It was September 2017 when I read the previous book, The Fortune of War, so I was worried at first that I might struggle to get back into the story and was relieved to find that it wasn’t a problem. As soon as I started to read, the events of book six came back to me quite vividly.
If you have not yet met Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, Dr Stephen Maturin, I would strongly recommend that you start at the beginning with Master and Commander. It will make it so much easier to follow the various storylines, which do continue from one book to the next, and to understand the complex relationships between the characters, particularly the one between Stephen and Diana Villiers.
This seventh novel opens with Jack, Stephen and Diana arriving in Halifax aboard the HMS Shannon following the Royal Navy’s victory over the American ship USS Chesapeake (a real event in the War of 1812). From Canada, they make their way home across the Atlantic to await further instructions. It’s not long before details of their next mission emerge: with his half-Catalan/half-Irish background, Stephen is required to travel to Grimsholm, a heavily fortified island in the Baltic, to persuade the Catalan army there to side with Britain against Napoleon. After seeing the pregnant Diana safely settled in Paris, Stephen accepts the job – on the condition that Jack Aubrey will command the ship on the voyage.
Jack is pleased to have a ship to command once again – and grateful to have an excuse to escape from the various entanglements of his life in England. Not only is he being cheated financially by a man he thought he could trust, he has also received a letter containing some unpleasant news from a woman he met in Halifax. The Baltic mission provides a welcome distraction, then, and at first things seem to be going well. Unfortunately, things then begin to go badly, and after a series of mishaps our heroes find themselves taken prisoner yet again!
I didn’t love this book quite as much as the previous two in the series; in fact, I felt that a lot of time was spent tying up some of the loose ends from those two and perhaps laying the foundations for the next one. There was still a lot to like, though; I enjoyed the sections set in Halifax and later in Paris and the details of Stephen’s work, both as a doctor and natural philosopher and as a spy, are always interesting. There are some funny moments too, although maybe not as many as in some of the earlier books; I loved Jack’s account of how he once played Ophelia in a sailors’ production of Hamlet:
‘Why, there was only one midshipman in the flagship pretty enough for a girl, but his voice was broke and he could not keep in tune neither; so for the part where she has to sing, I put on the dress and piped up with my back to the audience. But neither of us was going to be drowned and buried in real earth, Admiral or no Admiral, so that part fell to a youngster who could not defend himself; and that made three of us, do you see.’
I still struggle with the nautical jargon and the lengthy descriptions of sea battles, but seven books into the series I now know that I don’t really need to follow the battles too closely as long as I can get the basic gist of what has happened and what the outcome is. However, with this particular novel I found the nautical parts more confusing than usual, for some reason. Maybe I’m just out of practice and need to move quickly on to book eight!
This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.