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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
C. S. Forester had his swashbuckling Horatio Hornblower, Bernard Cornwell his dashing Richard Sharpe, but Patrick O'Brian, with his 20 volumes of adventures featuring Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, has transcended the genre and thrust Napoleonic storytelling into the literary limelight.
Blue at the Mizzen begins with a festive display of bonhomie and largesse that belies Aubrey's deep unease. The men of the Surprise have profited handsomely from their recent capture of a Moorish galley at the close of The Hundred Days. But the one prize Jack most desires -- his commission -- remains elusive. And with Napoleon safely bottled up once again, his frigate, lately attached to the Royal Navy, now officially reverts to its former status as a hydrographical vessel. Worse, this sudden outbreak of peace means that Jack runs the very real risk of losing his seasoned crew: "Your seaman," he muses, "can put up with uncommon dirty weather, endure great hardship and very short commons -- a good, steady, courageous, uncomplaining creature under officers he can respect.... What he cannot bear is sudden wealth. It goes straight to their heads, and if there is the least possibility they get drunk and disorderly, and desert in droves."
To forestall such an event, Jack orders Surprise to slip away from Gibraltar at dusk. But this stealthy gambit takes the ship into the first of several near-disasters that will bedevil her peacetime mission. In the dead of night, Surprise is struck a glancing blow across the bows by a dark Scandinavian timber carrier and nearly sunk. The ship is forced to put into port for repairs -- only to find that the recent cessation of hostilities has taken its toll on the Mediterranean's choice shipyards. While delayed in Madeira, however, Stephen Maturin contacts his intelligence network to sound out the Admiralty's position on the recent political situation in South America, where Chile and Peru are making their bid for independence from Spain.
Carrying a set of indecipherable dispatches, Maturin proceeds to Whitehall aboard Surprise's tender, Ringle, with Jack sailing hard in his wake to Sepping's Yard for proper repairs and crew. Among those who enlist is 15-year-old midshipman Horatio Hansen, the bastard son of the Duke of Clarence (a former naval man himself and the future King William IV). Refitted, remanned, and given the not-quite-official commission to "help the independent and republican Chileans to form a navy, " Surprise at last sets out on its "South American caper." But Dr. Maturin has one last surprise for his old friend Aubrey; he begs the favor of a brief leave in Sierra Leone, in order to discuss Linnaean classification of avifauna with a beautiful widow, Christine Wood -- and, incidentally, to ask her hand in marriage.
Gently rebuffed, Maturin leaves Sierra Leone with a renewed dedication to his relationship with his "dear Mrs. Wood." One of the book's most memorable sections is his record of the ship's southern passage around the Horn, exquisitely depicted in a serial letter to his beloved Christine. In recounting this portion of the journey from Maturin's perspective, O'Brian captures both the sublime and the quotidian aspects of the endeavor with brilliant philosophical detachment. Constant damp, cold meals, frostbite, tedium, and physical exhaustion are contrasted with the more intellectual impressions of the voyage: the spiritual ache of depression, loneliness, and isolation; the awesome power and harsh beauty of nature's extremes.
Perhaps shocking to some modern moralists, Dr. Maturin does not deny himself the psychic balms available to a 19th-century man of science -- coca, tobacco, laudanum, alcohol -- though he does keep to a strict personal code of moderation in all things (except, perhaps, an immoderate fondness for coffee). But there is little he can do to alleviate his old friend's deepening depression. For Aubrey, this uncertain escapade represents the last hope of attaining his personal "blue at the mizzen" -- the pennant that signifies an admiral at the head of his squadron. The only prescription for such a malady is action, and where swift and decisive action is concerned, Blue at the Mizzen does not disappoint. Allied with the factious Chilean juntas under Director-general Bernardo O'Higgins and the renegade officer Sir David Lindsay (formerly of His Majesty's Royal Navy), Jack makes an audacious preemptive strike on the pride of the Spanish fleet -- a whirlwind engagement that will determine both Chile's fate and his own. (Greg Marrs)