Patrick O'Brian,
H.M.S. Surprise
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1973;
W.W. Norton, 1991)

If you saw the movie Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, you will no doubt recall a tense scene during which Dr. Stephen Maturin operated upon himself, removing a lead ball from his own abdomen. That scene comes from neither the novel Master & Commander nor The Far Side of the World; it's found here, in the third book in the series, H.M.S. Surprise. The setting is different, as is the circumstance of Maturin's wounding, but the heart-stopping moment is otherwise scripted completely -- with tension, uncertainty, gripping medical trauma and a bit of mild humor -- in just over a page.

It's another example of Patrick O'Brian's keen sense of storytelling, and one of many excellent scenes in this novel. H.M.S. Surprise takes us to the East, where Capt. Jack Aubrey is to deliver a British envoy to his post. While he frets at being sent so far from the war with France, he is equally delighted to command the frigate Surprise, upon which he served in his youth. And never fear, with O'Brian at the helm of this tale, there is plenty of adventure to be found.

There are elephants and tigers, to be sure, as well as a cuddly shipboard sloth. There is also an entirely separate adventure that begins the novel: Aubrey, still in temporary command of the Lively, learns that Maturin has been captured in Spain and is suffering torture as a spy. The thrilling rescue itself would have made a full book; typical O'Brian that it's only a preface of things to come. Romances wax and wane, fortunes rise and fall -- and rise again.

I have never touched a series of historical novels that have so fully commanded my attention. These books are a true pleasure to read, and H.M.S. Surprise is a wonderful chapter in the ongoing saga.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 25 September 2004

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