Monday, June 10, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's POST CAPTAIN #ReReads2013

The perils of life ashore are many and varied if you are Jack Aubrey, Master & Commander in His Majesty's Navy ca. 1802. Post Captain, the second Aubrey/Maturin novel (and one of the funniest) seems to exist to detail them all.Or at least a whole lot of them.

Chief among these perils is that you might be trapped in a bit of Jane Austen-flavored courtship porn* for a good third of your novel. You might take a house to share with your shipmates and start thinking of starting a hunting pack when all of a sudden you run right into a pretty face. A pretty face with a wickedly grasping, calculating mother who is the chief reason that pretty face is still unmarried. But because you're only a dashing, commanding, formidable figure on the deck of a ship, you might be helpless and kind of thick when confronted with this pair. And if the pretty face has a pretty widowed cousin who is well on her way to being something of a courtesan for you to pursue as well, even though your best friend kind of likes her, too, well!

All that's going to be enough to drive your typical naval action, Napoleonic War-fixated O'Brian fan just a little batty, although it is nice to see that O'Brian conjured up some female characters that could more than hold their own against our sea captain and his physician friend. And I do mean more than hold their own! The boys are dished, simply dished, in their company, kind of hilariously helpless, mostly because they've not been prepared to deal with the likes of Sophie Williams and her awful mother, of Diana Villiers. These are future wives, and their presence changes these stories forever, and it's good to see how these relationships came to pass, but ugh, courtship porn.

Fortunately, the Seamen & Senselessness side of the story is more or less over relatively quickly, due to Jack's having run right into an even greater peril: debt. Houses and horses and country balls at which girls can look pretty and dance cost money, money Jack didn't quite have secured. He did many wonderful and potentially lucrative things in Master & Commander, but note that "potentially." His fortune was still vulnerable to legal and political maneuverings. What if, well let's not call them bad guys, let's call them other interests, won out against Jack?

Before we know it, he and Stephen are fleeing to Spain-by-way-of-France, but an end to the Peace of Amiens means they must make a hasty and rather ludicrous** overland escape from France to Spain. And then find their way back home because now that the peace is over, Jack can go back to work as a dashing naval captain and make some money to pay off his creditors. They don't call him Lucky Jack Aubrey for nothing, right?

Well, about that.

Because while Jack has been learning the perils of lubberdom, the Royal Navy has been experimenting with lunacy in the form of building a ship that can launch a giant rocket capable of destroying an enemy ship a mile away. And then scrapping the rocket idea after the lunatic inventor gets himself blown up the first time it's tested. But then building the ship anyway, because of reasons. Said ship being hailed as the "Carpenter's Mistake" and featuring all sorts of fangled notions like sliding keels and other nautical nonsense that makes it instantly recognizable from a distance and, as her captain will learn shortly, a horror to try to maneuver.

Guess who the captain of "that wicked Polychrest" is going to be?

But Lucky Jack isn't just lucky; he knows what he's doing, and while what he's doing looks quite comical to his fellows -- at one point a good friend on meeting the Polychrest at sea signals by way of alphabetical flags a reference to a line in psalms about delighting not in the strength of one's horse -- he actually finds a way to sail the thing, and even manages to fight an action with it that does everyone proud -- everyone except for his admiral, that same Harte with whose wife Jack meddled last novel.

Meanwhile, we get a satisfying look at Dr. Maturin's life when he is not playing music with Jack, or patching up Jack's crew, or gawking at seabirds from the deck of Jack's ship; Stephen is a secret agent! Whose achievements in that area wind up having direct bearing on what Jack gets to do after he's finished with the Polychrest! Huzzah!

My only regret with regards to this novel is its lack of news of my favorite subsidiary characters, for while Bonden and Preserved Killick and Tom Pullings and Babbington get to join in a touch of the fun, mostly because, well, someone has to be there, where is dear Mowett? Padeen, the Hodor of the Aubrey/Maturin books, we have not met yet but already I long for him. But that's part of the fun of re-reading these books, meeting everyone anew and then just anticipating their moments of glory.

There's plenty of that to go around, in over 20 novels.

*Please note that in saying this I do not mean to cast aspersions on Ms. Austen or her stories, though they are not to my taste. I simply don't think that "the masculine side of a bit of Jane Austen courtship porn" is something anyone goes looking for. Prove me wrong?
†Courtship porn = any story in which the courtship, usually leading to marriage, is the only point of it to the exclusion of pretty much anything else, whether the participants in said courtship are willing or not. It's a genre (or would it be a subgenre?) that I find tiresome. Courtship stories are fine and good, but they need to be part of something larger to tempt me.

**Okay, actually very ludicrous.

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