While Captain Aubrey worries about repairs to his ship, Stephen Maturin assumes the centre stage; for the dockyards and salons of Malta are alive with Napoleon's agents, and the admiralty's intelligence network is compromised.
Maturin's cunning is the sole bulwark against sabotage of Aubrey's daring mission. All of Patrick O'Brian's strengths are on parade in this novel of action and intrigue, set partly in Malta, partly in the treacherous, pirate-infested waters of the Red Sea.
Espionage, temptation, and "secret" missions
The first chapter of Treason's Harbour (1983), the 9th novel in Patrick O’Brian's wonderful Aubrey-Maturin series, brings readers new to the saga up to speed by profiling Jack Aubrey and his bosom friend Stephen Maturin via the narrative trick of having Stephen observe Jack while a French intelligence-agent (Lesueur) observes Stephen. Jack is a 100% English, blond, ox-like, noisy, open, good-natured, music-loving Royal Navy Captain who's heroic at sea and foolish ashore, while Stephen is a half-Catalan, half-Irish, dark, small, discreet, mordant, music-loving surgeon/spy/naturalist who's clumsy at sea and masterful ashore. By the end of the 8th novel, The Ionian Mission (1981), Jack and Stephen had scored big wins for the Turks and Brits in the war against France (Stephen hating the tyranny of Napoleon while turning a blind eye to England's own tyranny of India for example), and as this one begins they're still in the Mediterranean, stuck on Malta while Jack's ships are being repaired by "Slow devious stupid corrupt incompetent officials, tradesmen and artificers." The capable governor of Malta has been replaced with a dangerous fool, the island is teeming with spies, and Andrew Wray, who, ever since Jack once accused him of cheating at cards has been strangling Jack's career, has come to the island as the acting second secretary of the Admiralty. The friends' entertainment revolves around a beautiful Neapolitan woman, Mrs. Laura Fielding, who is teaching Jack Italian and flirting with Stephen and hosting both at her musical evenings. In fact she's working for the French, who have pressured her to get close to the friends by reminding her of her Royal Navy lieutenant husband being kept in a French prison under threat of death.
In addition to efficiently introducing Jack and Stephen, their adversaries, and the political situation, the first chapter provides interesting thoughts on mood and culture, humorous scenes involving Stephen and a horsefly and Jack and a giant dog, and vivid descriptions of the shining cityscape of Valletta on Malta. And the novel continues that way, an enriching and entertaining pleasure: Napoleonic Age of Sail adult comfort food with historical accuracy, human insights, interesting events, and savory characters.
Here are some examples of O’Brian’s witty, literate writing describing
--sailing: “the frigate's wake streamed away and away from him, dead white in the troubled green, so white, that the gulls poising and swooping over it looked quite dingy."
"Maturin, when playing cards, was not the most amiable of mortals."
“camels as composed as cats.”
“Now they had slowed to a walk, the air was still and the heat reverberated from the shimmering walls of the town, while the climbing sun, low in the west but still ferociously strong, beat full on his back.”
“Some of my best friends are Englishmen. . . Yet even the most valuable have this same vicious inclination to make a confused bellowing whenever happy. It is harmless enough in their own country, where the diet deadens the sensibilities, but it travels badly.”
Readers impatient for exciting action (especially naval) may not enjoy O’Brian’s leisurely pacing, as Jack and Stephen spend the majority of this novel ashore and engage in more conversation than battles. Readers who enjoy character and style and details about early 19th-century nautical affairs and espionage, here in the Mediterranean and Red Sea, with strong flavors from the Ottoman Empire and the Arabic world (Janissaries, Ramadan, sherbet, water tobacco, cushions, camels, ghouls, sand, heat, etc.), should enjoy the novel. Moreover, although action scenes are rare, when O’Brian writes them they are cinematic, suspenseful, and unpredictable, as in a brief, climactic fight involving a coast, rocks, ships, canons, and sailing. And O’Brian does write scenes of sublime or exhilarating or meditative seas and skies and sails and ships.
But this book is very much about espionage, taking its simple principle--to obtain information and deny it to the enemy--and complicating it with human nature, the uncooperative and proliferating state of the French and British intelligence organizations, and the tricky web of international relations between the two powers and the many other countries caught up in their war. Indeed, the flaw (for this reader) in the novel is related to the matter of intelligence. It may be due to O’Brian revealing Wray's perfidy to the reader early on, but I kept thinking that given Stephen's experience, wisdom, keen observation, and suspicious nature he'd surely suspect Wray more than he does.
O’Brian’s series reads like a single composite novel. Therefore, although the books more or less stand on their own, they do benefit from being read in order as a set, and some are less independent than others. Among the first nine novels in the series I've read so far, I’ve found a few story-arcs oriented around different theaters in the war between the UK and France and different stages in Jack’s career, and this 9th book ends in the middle of a developing arc, leaving some issues unresolved: Will Stephen discover “the Judas” leaking secret mission details to the French? Will Jack get a big ship to captain in the American theater? Thus readers who like the series will quickly want to go on to the 10th novel and readers new to the work should probably start with the splendid first book, Master and Commander (1969).
Ric Jerrom continues to be the only reader I can imagine for the audiobooks, effortlessly doing Jack and Stephen’s very different voices as well as those of a host of other characters, whether male or female, English or foreign, young or old, coarse or cultured, cool or slimy, angry or happy, speaking or singing, etc.
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- Taylor Britton
another fine volume in the series
another fine volume in the series. although i admit, the books are all starting to blend together for me. i can sympathize with the makers of the movie hacking together half the books into a single narrative instead of just picking their fav.