Re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series

The chief argosy of your command: Patrick O’Brian’s The Commodore

The Commodore is the seventeenth volume of the Aubrey-Maturin series, and I think it would be a very odd place to start. But as with The Wine Dark Sea, if there was nothing else around to read and you picked this up, I think you’d want the rest. I always remember the very wet camping holiday in Brittany when I was reduced to reading what everyone else had brought with them, which turned out to be The One Tree, Kajira of Gor, Wide Sargasso Sea and a Wilbur Smith book. If you’re in that situation and The Commodore is what’s available, just thank your lucky stars. But being volume seventeen, I don’t think I can say much about it without spoilers for the earlier books in the series.

Spoilers ahead.

The Commodore is a terrific book, one of my favourites. The book begins as the Surprise returns from the long voyage that has taken up so many volumes and so many imaginary years. Suddenly, we’re back in England and back in realtime—it’s 1814. Wray and Ledward are dead, but their shadowy backer, the Duke of Habachtsthal is malicious and means harm to Stephen.

Stephen and Diana’s daughter Brigid is autistic, or something like it, and Diana has played her usual trick of running away from trouble, leaving the child with Clarissa. (Oakes has been killed at sea, of course there’s been time for them to come home and for him to go out again and die!) Fortunately Padeen almost at once forms a bond with Brigid and brings her out of her inward world—I have a theory Padeen is one of the Sidhe, which makes sense of the time-difference thing and also of this curing autism, which isn’t scientifically curable. The speed of this cure over the course of the book also strikes me as implausible—O’Brian doesn’t usually rush this kind of thing. Stephen takes Brigid and Clarissa and Padeen and his fortune (in gold) to Spain, where they will be safe. Brigid loves the boat.

Jack is sent as a commodore—which was established back in The Mauritius Command as a job not a promotion—to the African coast to harry and prevent the slave trade. While there he does a great deal of that, and Stephen meets Governor Wood of Sierra Leone, and his wife Christine, who is a naturalist. (She is known in our house as “the potto woman,” because Stephen gives her a tame potto.) The fleet then sails back in time to intercept a French fleet, which they chase into Ireland, where Stephen finds Diana and is reconciled with her.

In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, the island of Nantucket is suddenly thrust by mysterious and never-explained means back to 1300 BC. There’s a Naval officer character who reads O’Brian and who suddenly realises that being stuck back in time she’s never going to get any more. She decides that The Commodore is good as a proper endpoint. I once asked Mr Stirling about this, as he’s not noted for being kind to his characters, because The Yellow Admiral, which ends on a cliffhanger, would have been published in time for her to read it, and he said that this was one of those things that happened because publishing takes time; he wasn’t being nice at all. However, I think of her whenever I finish The Commodore. It is a natural ending point in a way that almost none of the other books are—they are back from their voyage and reunited with Sophie and Diana, everything begun in this book is brought to a more-or-less successful conclusion. It isn’t the end. But if you were stuck in 1300 BC, you might be glad to believe it was.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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