Mon
Nov 22 2010 12:08pm

Parenthesis: Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’BrienThe Ionian Mission is the eighth book of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it takes us back to the Mediterranean, where we haven’t yet been except for very briefly in the first book.

I think this would be a perfectly reasonable place to randomly start reading, as it’s beginning a new mini-arc within the overall arc of story. This Mediterranean cruise is supposed to be a single parenthetic episode in Jack’s career—of course, things never work out the way people expect, and in these books least of all.

Jack’s interaction with Wray at cards at the beginning of Desolation Island sets off a plot that will not be fully resolved until the end of The Commodore, but there is also a voyage begun in Desolation Island which is ended in The Surgeon’s Mate. There’s also a plot that begins in Post Captain where Jack and Stephen meet Sophie and Diana, which you might think was also resolved in The Surgeon’s Mate when Stephen and Diana marry, except that O’Brian wasn’t done with it.

The Ionian Mission begins in London several months at least after the end of The Surgeon’s Mate, with Stephen and Diana on good terms but living apart because of his undomestic nature. Jack hasn’t been given the Acasta, because of Wray’s spite, and instead he’s sent to the Mediterranean in the Worcester, one of the “Forty Thieves,” a 70 gun but barely seaworthy ship of the line. They join the Mediterranean blocade of the French ports, hoping the French will come out and there will be a battle. Later when the Worcester becomes entirely unseaworthy after chasing the French, Jack is given his old command the Surprise for a detached mission in the Ionian in which he has to deal with contenders for the Albanian statelets of Marga and Kutali.

Now we’re back to the form of earlier in the series, starting out in England for a commission—and this commission will take us three books. Jack’s affairs in England are hopelessly muddled and he’s penniless again, because of his silver mine.

The book is enlivened with duelling poets—Mowett is joined by Rowan. It’s also enlivened by the presence of the ponderous Dr. Graham, who is spying for some other British agency. He gets entangled with Stephen on several occasions—it’s hilarious when Stephen tries to explain nautical jargon to him and gets carried away, but not so funny when he ruins a plan ashore in Catalonia.

One of my favourite moments is when Pullings presses a man who had been to sea as a boy and whose business will now be ruined, and Stephen tells him he’s not medically fit and lets him go. The whole thing doesn’t take more than a page, but it’s beautifully timed—and a rare instance of humanity in the Navy. I also very much like Jack messing up the diplomacy by agreeing right away, and I like the Englishman on the Turkish ship showing off about the marble cannonballs.

I always think of The Ionian Mission as being the first half of Treason’s Harbour, as if these two books were a pair within the series. It’s hard to remember where one stops and the other starts.

There are a lot of old friends here—Pullings and Mowett, of course, Babbington, with his own ship, the Dryad, Killick and Bonden. We see some old enemies too, Harte and Wray in particular. And Wray is closely connected to Harte, his son in law, as well as being highly placed at the Treasury. Harte is mean-spirited and hates Jack, but Wray is much worse.

The book ends abruptly, after the battle with the Torgud, without detail of the taking of Kutali, which surprised me the first time I read it, as we’d had so much lead up to that.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, 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.

Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series: ‹ previous | index | next ›
9 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
I agree, Ionian and Treason's Harbour make a set. I don't know if this would be a good place to start reading however- there's an awful lot of background.

I loved Stephen and Diana's marriage- Mrs. Broad definitely makes a third in that relationship.

One of my favorite bits with the dueling poets is in the contest. Jack manages to make both Mowett and Rowan winners, and would have included the Marine officer as well if he could. (also the shock of the Marine officer- how could anyone be expected to write the stuff?)
Tony Zbaraschuk
2. tonyz
I like Maturin and Graham sparring over each other's definitions about natural and moral philosophy. Graham (the moral philosopher) suggests that Stephen (the naturalist) might be an "immoral philosopher" and Stephen agrees, on condition that he can call Graham an "unnatural philosopher", which Graham does not take very well. Much, much dry and understated humor in the series, that you have to be paying attention to catch.

In some respects this is also the last "historical" book of the series; I have long felt that it's somewhere in Treason's Harbor that Jack and Stephen sail off onto the seas of Faerie and never quite return to normal life.
a1ay
3. a1ay
The book ends abruptly, after the battle with the Torgud, without detail of the taking of Kutali, which surprised me the first time I read it, as we’d had so much lead up to that.

He does this a lot. It was, to be honest, my main problem with O'Brien.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
A1ay: I have learned to think of it as part of the pattern of what he's doing -- but when he kills major characters between books it's always disconcerting.
a1ay
5. Foxessa
Me too! Regarding these two titles as 'a set.' I also love them, and they do indeed make me laugh -- such as the Maturin set piece of nautical information. I recall so well, working out in the the heat of my NYC apt. (this was a good thing, not a bad -- I have a/c, but I shut it down in summer during the day mostly, and certainly while working out) listening to this, and just cracking up.

Thank you so much for keeping up this series. I have not the time to keep reading or even listening to these now, and even my work out listening time has gone toward history on cd too. It's lovely to hear of them again.

Love, C.
a1ay
6. Christopher Byler
I like Maturin and Graham sparring over each other's definitions about natural and moral philosophy. Graham (the moral philosopher) suggests that Stephen (the naturalist) might be an "immoral philosopher" and Stephen agrees, on condition that he can call Graham an "unnatural philosopher", which Graham does not take very well.

Actually, that was one of Jack's jokes (and he takes the retort in good humor); Graham takes a dislike to Stephen after he makes up some nautical terminology, which Graham then asks the crew about.
a1ay
7. peachy
Not to be pedantic, but our last visit to the Med was at the beginning of the third book - the first was pretty much entirely set there (depending on how you count Gibraltar), though we certainly get around a bit more in The Ionian Mission.

And, yeah, I definitely have always felt that 8 & 9 are a natural pair. The Far Side of the World picks up very quickly after Treason's Harbour, but really starts a new self-contained arc. (The people who chose it as the basis for the movie were right on, in my opinion; for a one-off film focused on the seafaring aspects of the series, you can't do better.)

Hmm... is this our introduction to the Rev. Nathaniel Martin?
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Peachy: Yes it is, and Martin is going to be important so I should have mentioned that. Thank you.
Jim Hardy
9. JimZipCode
@ 3&4: Regarding the abrupt endings – sometimes it makes sense, and after I dwell on it a while I think he's a genius. Sometimes it detracts, makes the books feel like mere installments.

It's not just his Aubrey-Maturin books. Check out his biography of Picasso. It's rich with incident, fascinating: and when Picasso dies, that book is OVER. Very sudden.

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