The Ionian Mission – Patrick O’Brian

Also known as Volume 8 of the Continuing Adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Captain Aubrey must once again fly from home life in order to escape creditors and therefore accepts the first commission available, on a ship he does not like, to a task he finds dull, and under a senior officer with a grudge. Circumstances  during the dull blockade force a transfer, followed by a mission to the Ottoman Empire that will call for both diplomatic and naval skill.

Reviewing installments in this long-running series is difficult. I like our core characters–bold and capable Jack Aubrey and the circumspect and intelligent Stephen Maturin–and particularly appreciate O’Brian’s attention to detail. This attention was all the more necessary in this book because there is so little action to drive the story. But this is the point, not a flaw. Blockade is boring.

Several features of O’Brian’s style stood out in The Ionian Mission . First, and probably in an accurate representation of the historical context, Aubrey’s successful promotion puts him in a position to be away from fighting. Commanding a large ship is about bureaucratic maneuvers, while the smaller vessels had the liberty to seek or stumble into action. It is no surprise then that O’Brian creates a transition back to Aubrey’s beloved HMS Surprise for  the eponymous Ionian Mission. Second, there are a few set pieces in each book, including the battle scene, the gunnery training montage, and the creditors on land. No two are exactly alike, but while the plots do differ, one of the tricks O’Brian uses to vary the books almost as much is to change the starting and concluding points. In this case there is technically no resolution, but cuts away immediately after the climax. The result is that the book is a genuinely serialized product.

The Ionian Mission is a solid installment in an enjoyable historical fiction series, but I would certainly recommend starting a the beginning.

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Next up, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s deeply disconcerting dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and will probably dive into Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers later this weekend.

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