The Wine Dark Sea is the sixteenth volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and while it’s one of the best books of the series it wouldn’t be a good place to start. I mean if you were lost in the rain in Juarez and it was the only English language book around, you’d probably go on to read the rest of the series, but I can’t recommend deliberately going out of your way to start here. And I can’t say much more about it without spoilers for the previous fifteen volumes, sorry.
In The Wine Dark Sea we finally get to Chile, where we’ve been heading since The Letter of Marque. But before that episode of politics, high adventure and natural philosophy there’s a wonderful voyage, a volcano and a very hard passage. This really is the book with everything.
It begins minutes after the end of Clarissa Oakes. The Surprise is at sea, pursuing the Franklin when the sea turns a strange colour. In the darkness, they think the ship is being mysteriously bombarded, but in fact it’s a new volcano emerging from under the Pacific. The Franklin, ahead, is more damaged and they rescue her as much as capture her. The Frenchman Dutourd is an ardent Jacobin—and there’s a very clever interplay between him and the crew, when O’Brian looks at class on the English side and how so many of the present officers are fine seamen but not gentlemen and therefore won over by Dutourd. I especially like how Dutourd doesn’t realise he’s supposed to have letters of marque and could be hung as a pirate. He’s an engaging mix of idealism and idiocy. He isn’t popular with the lower deck, but with the newly made officers.
In Chile, Stephen’s plans at first go wonderfully, and then Dutourd escapes and sabotages everything, and Stephen has to escape over the high Andes to Peru, aided by his coca leaves. Stephen’s addictions really are amazing—he has the addictive personality all right, he goes from opium to tobacco to coca without really noticing that the problem isn’t the substances but his own attitude of thinking that this time he has found the very thing to help! The description of the Andes and the llamas is wonderful, almost getting frostbite—and similarly Jack almost dying of thirst trying to get the launch in to warn Stephen of Dutourd’s escape. There’s a lot of very well written privation and danger and inimical elements.
Sarah and Emily are wonderful here, so is Pullings. It’s a book where everyone is very much themselves—I love the bit with Killick and his Gregory’s ointment for Jack’s eye.
At last, having escaped South America with absolutely nothing achieved, they set off for home—and bad weather and bad luck combine to put them in a seemingly impossible position, rudderless and very far south. But at the last minute they fall in the help in the form of Heneage Dundas, and head for home.
This Chilean exploit was first proposed at the end of The Reverse of the Medal and it has been looming for this six book voyage out of time—because when they return to England at the beginning of The Commodore the clock will start ticking in a regular way again. It’s hard to say how long they have been away, but it might be worth looking at what they have achieved. They successfully negotiated the treaty with the Sultan, though they lost the envoy. They got rid of Wray and Ledward, though not all of their enemies at home. They sorted things out in Hawai’i. They rescued Padeen, and Clarissa, from New South Wales. So some achievements, certainly, and some prizes taken too, even if they didn’t succeed in freeing Chile.
On to The Commodore, and England, and real time again.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine 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.