Treason’s Harbour – Patrick O’Brian

Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series, picks up very nearly where the Ionian Mission leaves off, skipping only the denouement Aubrey’s mission to capture a Balkan harbor. This time both his ships, the H.M.S. Worcester and the H.M.S. Surprise, are stuck in harbor and potentially never to set sail again, so the action shifts to the spymaster Maturin and his duel with French intelligence agents in Malta. The scenes there are interspersed with a brief foray to the Red Sea and several port-ventures where the French activity has preceded the British arrival, with Aubrey narrowly avoiding ambush on more than one instance. Along the way there are more mundane concerns as Captain Aubrey worries about his personal finances (which he is dodging) and the future of the midshipmen under his care.

Even more than the Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbor is a serial installment, picking up where the last left and leaving off in preparation for the next without much care for an individual story arc. For many series this would frustrate me to no end, not least because I often want to see some further resolution in each story, but here I think it works. For one thing, O’Brian is quite good at creating cliff-hangers. For another, the story and recurring cast of characters brings to life the British Navy in a way that is almost domestic. The fighting scenes are well-written and therefore exhilarating, but the bulk of the books are the mundane interactions of swabbing the decks. What’s more, he can get away with this by building affection for the characters through their competence and general goodness in contrasted with other people in the navy. For instance, Jack Aubrey loves his wife Sophie and cares for his crew, even though he is not a particularly good person in many instances. In fact, he is a rather bad husband and, while he is good at keeping his people alive, he is capable of grating with other people who might be annoying but also have legitimate grudges. Yet, Aubrey’s genial benevolence and distaste for corporal punishment endears him to the reader.

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Next up, I am currently about halfway through Kingsley Amis’ The Russian Girl, a farce about terrible people and worse poetry.

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