The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian: A review

Jack Aubrey is such a dunderhead on land. On sea, captaining a ship of His Majesty's Navy,  he may be canny and virtually invincible - "Lucky Jack" they call him - but on land, his only luck seems to be bad and it's the luck that he makes for himself through utterly foolish decisions. 

Time and again he's had to be rescued by his friend, the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. That will be the case again in The Surgeon's Mate, seventh in Patrick O'Brian's excellent historical naval fiction series of the Napoleonic War period.

This book is a continuation and completion of the tale begun in part six of the series, The Fortune of War. Jack and Stephen have been ordered home by dispatch vessel from Halifax, following their escape from captivity by the Americans in Boston. 

With them is Diana Villiers, Stephen's long-time love, who escaped from Boston and an abusive relationship, with the two. Her presence is enough to goad her former lover, a rich and powerful man, to engage two privateers to try to stop them and bring them back. The privateers chase the vessel carrying the escapees through the dense fogs of the Grand Banks, culminating in a surprising denouement.

At home again in England, Jack learns that, yes, he really has been a dunderhead - in so many ways. His fortune is at risk as is his personal happiness with Sophie and his three children because of stupid decisions on his part. If only he could be given command of a ship and go to sea again, ironically the one place where he does not feel all "at sea"!

His chance soon comes.

Stephen is directed to travel to the Baltic area to make contact with a Catalan group there and bring them on board with England's struggle against Napoleon. He suggests that his friend Jack be given a ship with orders to travel to the Baltic, so that they can, once again, sail together. The Admiralty makes it so and the two friends head out on the continuation of their adventure.

First, though, Stephen has traveled to Paris, taking Diana along with him and he has installed her there. Her situation regarding citizenship is somewhat precarious and it is felt that she will be safest there.

The trip through the Baltics becomes one hairy escape after another as Stephen attempts to fulfill the assignment given him, and, as always, takes time along the way to observe the interesting bird life.

And, in the end, Lucky Jack Aubrey proves that sometimes even a dunderhead's luck will hold on land.

The book is up to O'Brian's usual standards, which is to say it is a quick and interesting read with the unexpected bits of humor thrown in to keep the story moving. And, as always, it is full of naval lore, but that needn't slow you down unless you want it to and, like some readers I know, you have to understand every word and term you see in print, no matter how abstruse. Personally, I find that it is perfectly possible to keep up with the flow of the story even if you don't know a mizzen topgallant staysail from a spanker. 


  1. Dorothy - I haven't ever read any O'Brian - yet another author for me to look out for! So many books, so little time....

    1. I know the feeling only too well, Carole. This is a very worthwhile series, especially for lovers of good historical fiction. He wrote much in the style of Jane Austen - if Austen had written naval adventures! - which is true to the period about which he wrote. And he wrote with a great deal of humor, which always helps the story along, I find.


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