Patrick O'Brian,
The Mauritius Command
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1977;
W.W. Norton, 1991)

The Mauritius Command begins with a dismal accounting of Capt. Jack Aubrey's unhappy domestic situation ashore: poverty, a shrewish mother-in-law, cramped and ramshackle accommodations, young twin daughters who escape his understanding, a sad but patient wife and, of course, a desperate longing for the sea. But the novel, fourth in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of British naval adventures, also includes some of the most laudable and detestable naval tactics, heroic endeavors and acts of incompetence that have ever been packed into one book.

Aubrey is made commodore, a temporary appointment placing him in command of ships and men destined for the French-held islands of Mauritius and La Reunion. The voyage around the Cape of Good Hope might be exciting enough for some, but O'Brian -- whose knowledge of nautical terms, tactics and the performance capabilities of war ships in a variety of circumstances is unparalleled -- weaves together a vivid, stirring tale of naval feats.

Based on an actual campaign in the Indian Ocean, the novel sets a new bar for action; at the same time, the story is inarguably character-driven. And what characters! Besides the usual complement of sailors led by Lucky Jack and his dear friend, ship's surgeon and intelligence officer Stephen Maturin, O'Brian provides us with several new captains and admirals, each with distinct strengths and weaknesses, and even their ships develop easily recognizable personalities as the mission unfolds.

Under Aubrey's careful leadership the odds slowly build in England's favor -- until a series of misjudgments by the captains under his command lead to several heartbreaking, devastating defeats. It is impossible to read the tale without being moved, or without feeling the shudder of ships sorely battered by cannon fire and running with blood.

The Mauritius Command is a taut, thrilling novel of seamanship. This book alone should make an O'Brian addict of anyone who has the pleasure to read it.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 9 October 2004

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