Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian: A review

Blue at the Mizzen (Aubrey/Maturin, #20)Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my final voyage with Captain (now Admiral) "Lucky Jack" Aubrey and Dr. (naturalist/spy) Stephen Maturin. Patrick O'Brian was working on a 21st entry to the series at the time of his death and it was, in fact, later published, incomplete, with an afterword by someone else. But I don't think I will be reading it. It just seems wrong somehow. I am content to leave Aubrey and Maturin, savoring their latest "famous victory" and Jack's imminent promotion to admiral, with Stephen happy in the knowledge that his daughter and his new lady love (a fellow naturalist) have become friends and are looking forward to his return.

This last complete volume in the series is different from those that came before in some ways. There isn't as much naval action as many of O'Brian's fans have come to anticipate, although its absence is no cause for regret for me since I never read the books for their naval battles. In fact, the battles that do occur are told in an offhand way, often in letters written by Maturin, who, even after all his years on the sea, is no seaman.

Much of the story is told through Stephen's letters to the lady who he has asked to marry him and who is considering the offer and to Sir Joseph Blaine, his spymaster in London. And so we see the action through his eyes.

The meandering plot of Blue at the Mizzen takes up at the end of the previous book, The Hundred Days, which saw the final defeat of Napoleon and the standing down of the British Navy. That standing down has led to the desertion of some of the crew of the Surprise and so it is with an incomplete ship's complement that Aubrey prepares to take on his new mission.

That incomplete status doesn't last for long, of course, as former shipmates learn that he needs crew. They come to volunteer and soon the frigate is fully staffed once again and on its way to Chile where a revolution is brewing. The mission is to deliver Stephen and his friend and fellow intelligence agent Dr. Jacob to Concepcion, where they are to aid and encourage the junta which England sees as the more congenial group.

After the usual ups and downs, their mission is successful, including a final naval battle against a Peruvian faction which had planned an invasion of Chile. Reports of that battle are sent home and soon the word comes back. Jack is authorized to fly "blue at the mizzen," the signal that he is a rear admiral, and they are to proceed to South Africa on their new mission.

Sadly, we'll never know what O'Brian intended as the outcome of that mission, but we can guess that, whatever the hardships that came their way, it all ended in greater glory for Aubrey and, for Maturin, ultimate happiness with a woman equal to him in intellect as they raise his uniquely talented daughter together.

As always, the real story of these voyages has been the ongoing and ever-deepening friendship between the naval captain, Jack Aubrey, and the ship's surgeon, British intelligence agent, wealthy Catalonian aristocrat, staunch Irish patriot, and avid naturalist, Stephen Maturin.

Aubrey is the bold man of the sea, fearless in battle, innovative yet cautious, but compassionate, even tender-hearted, with his crew. On land, he was utterly hopeless. All of his native intelligence and intuition which served him so well at sea evaporated once his feet touched land and he became a bumbling booby. As Maturin was often rescued by Aubrey when he got into perilous situations, so Aubrey was frequently rescued - often without his knowledge - by Maturin's actions and scheming on his behalf. That pattern continues to the end when Maturin saves Aubrey from an egregious political error after their action in Chile.

This novel is not plot driven; it meanders along, propelled by mostly gentle breezes, and O'Brian takes his time in telling the story. After all, the voyage rather than the destination has always been the point of these tales.

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  1. I don't even want to think about when my favorite series reaches the end, intended or otherwise. I think I will mourn the characters. Feel free to do that, Dorothy. Too bad the author didn't live longer. :'(

    1. O'Brian was 85 when he died in 2000 and he was still going strong. It's too bad that he wasn't able to finish #21, but he definitely died with his boots on - not a bad way to go, I guess.

  2. As I have mentioned, my husband loved these books. Do you know of any similar series that he might like as well?

    1. Offhand, I can't think of any, although I am sure there are some. Probably Google or Amazon or a librarian would know. Maybe our husbands have similar tastes - Bob is the one who got me into reading these books. He kept insisting that I would like them even though they are classified as naval histories. As usual, he was right.


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