The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Thirteen-Gun Salute (Aubrey/Maturin, #13)The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The thirteen-gun salute refers to the number of volleys given in honor of an ambassador, an envoy, and that title here presages a tale of a diplomatic mission that Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin are assigned on behalf of England.

But first, we find Aubrey still sailing the Surprise as in the last book, The Letter of Marque. That changes rather quickly, although never quick enough for Jack, when he is reinstated to the Royal Navy because of his exploits on behalf of the nation as a privateer. He is once again "Captain" Jack Aubrey and all is right in his world.

Well, almost all. Being a part of the Royal Navy once again means he must leave his beloved Surprise behind. He is given command of the Diane, formerly a French vessel, which he captured in the last book, and he is sent to accompany his friend Maturin on a diplomatic mission that will take them to the South China Sea. There, Maturin is to aid and support the king's envoy in securing a treaty with the Malay court at Pulo Prabang, a treaty that will prevent links between Bonaparte and the Malay princes that would put English merchant shipping at risk.

At the Sultan's court, Maturin encounters two French agents who have been his nemesis in the past and who are now well-entrenched in the Sultan's good graces, and with whom he must find a way of dealing so that the mission can succeed. At the same time, the English envoy proves to be a fatuous, self-important man, sensitive to any perceived slight - perhaps not the best personality for an ambassador, but Stephen Maturin is nothing if not resourceful and he manages his behind-the-scenes role with his usual aplomb, ensuring that the necessary treaty can be achieved.

This is a departure from the usual arc of these stories in that there is no great sea battle recounted, no prizes to be won. Instead, the action is mostly of a quieter kind until near the end when a killer typhoon hits after the Diane has become intractably stuck on an uncharted reef. Aubrey and his men must abandon the ship and go ashore to wait out the storm.

But before that final excitement, we get to accompany Stephen Maturin on a quieter - but no less exciting to him and to like-minded readers - adventure when he climbs the Thousand Steps to a sacred crater where a community of Buddhists watches over a habitat that includes orangutans and many other fascinating species. It is the high point of his time in the Malay world.

During this voyage also, Maturin is anticipating the birth of a child. His wife, Diana, is expecting their first child, which he is completely convinced will be a girl and he longs for news from home which will confirm that for him.

But he never gets that confirmation and we have to leave him there on a desolate rock in the South China Sea along with Aubrey and all the other men of the Diane who managed to survive the storm as they plan to build a schooner to escape their predicament. We'll have to wait for number 14 in the series to see whether they succeed. (I strongly suspect that they will!)

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