Patrick O'Brian,
The Letter of Marque
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1988;
W.W. Norton, 1992)

After a disappointing financial venture and his heartbreaking dismissal from the service in The Reverse of the Medal, celebrated British naval captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey heads back to sea for a new series of adventures at the helm of a private man-of-war.

Although he again stands firmly on the swabbed and polished deck of his beloved ship Surprise, Aubrey no longer has the official backing of the British admiralty. Instead, he owes his remaining status to his close and wealthy friend Stephen Maturin (also his ship's surgeon and a British intelligence agent), who purchased the decommissioned ship and obtained for Aubrey a letter of marque -- basically, a license for piracy against Britain's foes.

With many loyal seamen flocking to sail under Aubrey's flag, the captain lives up to his nickname on his first privateering voyage. Fortunes restored and reputation on the rise, he is soon called upon to carry out a vital mission for England -- and his former rank and standing in the British Navy may be on the line if he succeeds.

Various subplots continue to unfold; foremost among them here is Maturin's opium addiction (and his unwitting weaning from the drug) and his reconcilliation with his estranged (and outraged) wife.

After the preceding novel, which was spent almost entirely ashore, The Letter of Marque is an exuberant return to sea for Patrick O'Brian's popular hero. Naval history buffs (who are no doubt already fans of the series) will enjoy O'Brian's detailed account of the differences in action and attitude between government ships and the "lowly" privateers, and armchair strategists will want to absorb the brilliance of Aubrey's tactics again and again.

Having started the series in the middle (spurred by the recent film), I have now completed my third book in the life of Aubrey. I continue to be impressed by O'Brian's intelligent plotting, with dialogue and atmosphere that whisks readers right back to the early 19th century.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 21 August 2004

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