The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian: A review

I love reading series, returning again and again to visit with characters that I've come to know and value. There are few series that I enjoy more than Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin British Royal Navy seafaring adventures set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic War. 

Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin are by now old friends of mine, even as they are old friends of each other. They are veterans of many battles and have come far since the early days of their association when they served in the Mediterranean. In the number eight entry in the series, they return to the Mediterranean, but their circumstances are much altered.

Aubrey is a senior captain commanding a line-of-battle ship in the Navy's blockade of Toulon. There are no dashing frigate actions here, no prizes to be won. Instead, a great line of ships maintains a long, cold, hard line, trapping the enemy French ships. 

It is a boring and tedious exercise, and, throughout much of the book, the reader gets a sense of what such an enterprise must have been like. 

Long, maddening hours of inaction, waiting for something to happen do not boost the morale of the ship's crew and Jack has his hands full in maintaining discipline, keeping the communal spirit high (done, perhaps surprisingly, through music and literature!), and keeping his men ready and sharply prepared to fight when and if the occasion arises.

Meanwhile, his ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin continues his undercover job as a British intelligence agent, gathering information at every port to try to hasten the fall of the hated Napoleon. Stephen, too, is much changed from his early days, having, at one time in an earlier book, been caught behind lines and tortured before eventually being rescued by Aubrey and his men. He still bears the scars of that torture.

Maturin's personal situation, too, has changed since he has now married the love of his life and has left her ensconced in a fine house in England while he once again takes to the seas.

Throughout perhaps two-thirds of this book, the blockade and the inaction continue and the reader begins to wonder if anything is ever going to happen! But then a sudden turn of events reunites Stephen and Jack with their old frigate, the Surprise, and aboard that vessel, they are sent off on a hazardous mission to the Greek Islands to try to make allies of the Turks against Napoleon. 

And, finally, we do get some action and we get to see Aubrey use his skills of seamanship as he must fight against heavy odds. Will "Lucky Jack's" luck hold once more? 

This book is even more fraught than others in the series with technical naval language. The descriptions of equipment and of naval maneuvers run to pages at a time until the eyes of the uninitiated truly begin to glaze over. Moreover, as noted previously, there is less action in The Ionian Mission than in most of the earlier books. All of this makes for somewhat dull reading for long periods, and yet O'Brian's sly humor breaks through from time to time to liven things up.

Reading along, I was surprised at one point to come across a non-nautical term that I had not heard in many years - Solomon Gundy. It was something that my grandfather used to refer to and I had never heard it from anyone else. I couldn't remember what he had meant by it - I was a child at the time I heard it - but a bit of research turned up the answer. It's a type of food. It can mean, variously, a kind of fish pate` especially popular in Jamaican cuisine or a kind of mixed salad with a little bit of this and a little bit of that thrown in. My grandfather had no Jamaican connections so I suspect he was referring to the salad.

What interesting things one can learn from a Patrick O'Brian book and what forgotten memories it can sometimes dredge up.


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