Feb 21 2011 12:11pm

A fine clear deck: Patrick O’Brian’s Blue at the Mizzen

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O’BrianBlue at the Mizzen is the twentieth and final volume of the Aubrey-Maturin series and you’d be mad to try to start here unless you’re cast away with only this volume. I can’t discuss it without spoilers for the previous nineteen books.

This is the final volume, but it’s not the final post on this series—I’m going to be looking at the “unfinished manuscript for Book 21” next week, and considering the series as a complete thing.

By the time I read Blue at the Mizzen I knew that O’Brian was dead and it would be the last book, so it was coloured with a kind of valediction he didn’t mean it to have. It wasn’t intended as the last book, but it has to serve us as one. I spent the whole book wanting glimpses of people we’d left behind, every time we made port I hoped Babbington might be passing, or Heneage Dundas. I didn’t so much want the book I had in my hand as for the series to go on forever. This made it hard to read, and of course, since then I’ve always known it was the Last Book.

After the triumphant end of The Hundred Days, Blue at the Mizzen begins with a collision and limping back into Gibraltar, and the crew leaking away into peacetime prosperity in exactly the way Jack didn’t want. Then they have to go back to England, where we do get to see Sophie and all the children.

They set sail eventually, and stop in Sierra Leone for long enough for Stephen and the potto woman Christine Wood to go nude bathing and for Stephen to propose and be rejected on the grounds that she doesn’t care for sex. This is a very strange episode that doesn’t quite work—I believe that she cares for natural history and even for Stephen, but her lack of taboos seems really implausible. They set off again for South America where they train the local navy but become embroiled in politics. A happy ending is provided by a recall to the navy and Jack’s promotion to Admiral. Jack was happy when he became a master and commander and even happier when he made post, and his heart is full again as he hoists his flag. O’Brian didn’t mean it to be the end, but it will pass for one.

Good things—Prince William and the midshipman Horatio who is his son. There’s some very nice Joe Plaice and Killick, though Bonden is sadly missed—but I’m glad he’s missed, it’s the only thing that makes up for losing him so abruptly. Jack does truly miss him here. And Jack gets to be an admiral, at last, not yellowed, and very well deserved a promotion it is—but it comes right at the end, we never get to see him being an admiral. It’s quite clear that O’Brian would have kept on writing these books as long as he had breath—he did. Death sucks.

Once I start reading this series I do not want to stop. You’d think after twenty books I’d be ready for a change, but I never am. I come up for air and look around blinking and trying to decide what I want to read next, when what I want is more Jack and Stephen, but I know I’m not going to get it.

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.

Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
Notice David Drake's comments on the historical sources for this book as also used by Drake in his own space opera homage to Jack, Stephen and sailing ships and iron men and women:

The genesis of my RCN novels was Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin series, set during and after the Napoleonic Wars. It therefore won’t surprise many of you to find a number of plot points common to O’Brian’s last novels and When the Tide Rises. This is a case of convergent evolution, however, rather than direct borrowing on my part: we’re both working from Lord Cochrane’s memoirs of service under the revolutionary governments of Chili (sic) and Brazil.
Mr O’Brian isn’t around to ask, but I suspect we diverge from Cochrane’s reality for the same reason. If you’re writing a series, you create an enormous problem for yourself if your hero is seen as a traitor by his government.

I'd forecast the same sort of following that Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe have inspired of kidding on the square these are real people in companion volumes and guides save for rights issues and the changes in publishing. Maybe even so.
2. peachy
At least in terms of Jack, I always felt that #20 brings things to a perfect close. Jack's arc through the entire series is as a captain - even in his two stints of higher command he's always intimately concerned with the activity of his pennant ship - and the books carry him from his first command (promoted & appointed in Ch 1 of Master & Commander) to his last (instructed to hoist his flag on damn near the final page of Blue at the Mizzen.) Indeed, the arc was so perfectly concluded that I had always assumed that #20 was meant to be the final book... imagine my surprise when I saw the unfinished #21 at a bookstore. :)

And while it would have been wonderful to see more of our heroes and their world, I'm almost happy that it wrapped where it did. Naval series seem to run into trouble when it comes time to promote the hero to admiral - it's so much easier for a captain to have satisfying adventures, you know? So authors try to keep their heroes captains for as long as possible, though if the hero is at all competent - and they almost have to be - it becomes harder and harder to justify not promoting them. Forester squeezed out an extra book by having Hornblower be captured, Weber put Harrington through the political wringer (and then had her captured), O'Brian had Jack set up by traitors and kicked right out of the Navy, Drake has thrown every possible political complication in Leary's path, the assorted Trek writers promoted Kirk off-screen and then busted him back down to Captain at the first opportunity... At least Forester and Drake had the foresight to start their stories when the hero was a junior officer, which gave them more time to play with.
Pamela Adams
3. Pam Adams
This is one where I needed the Mapping Project- there were so many journeys back and forth that it was impossible to keep track.

One of the surprises to me was finding out about Clarissa's marriage- and her new position as wife of a rector. One hopes that her new husband appreciates her talents.
4. Christopher Byler
Drake has thrown every possible political complication in Leary's path

Has he? I thought he was still avoiding the big one, when Daniel svaqf bhg gung uvf sngure senzrq Zhaql'f snzvyl sbe cbyvgvpny ernfbaf. That would raise all kinds of hell for both of the main characters. (Unless Drake never had that in mind at all, but I could have sworn there were hints pointing in that direction.)

But anyway, I agree with the main point -- admirals have too much administration. And O'Brien had a related problem with Stephen -- it was just getting too implausible that enemy intelligence people hadn't heard of him. Johnson has known about him for 15 books, told the French 12 books ago... who's left that could plausibly believe in his cover? By this time he's enough of a marked man that he should endanger anyone he comes into contact with.
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
My reading of the Three Circles Conspiracy is that it was real -in the sources and in the Leary/Mundy world - and accepted as such by all.

Certainly there is every possibility for an interesting story should Mundy be thrown together with her ultimate tenant/landlord - I'd guess if the circumstances were private and allowed plausible denial that it ever happened then it would indeed be denied - else somebody dies; could be Speaker Leary throws himself on his sword so to speak somewhat as Major Steuben died.

It does seem to take direct authorial intervention to put Leary in place of Lieutenant Mon for the Russian south sea cruise that Drake used for the RCN series and elsewhere; such things do discourage some readers just as others will retcon on request for favored characters - and these are all favored characters - but there is a limit.

Reverting I'd say rather that there is no enduring room for another admiral center stage in the story space ; where would the story go? Maybe interdicting the slave trade? Certainly Nelson and Lady Hamilton isn't administration, logistics and training but there's only one Nelson. Still in general a good admiral is administration, logistics and training - amateurs study tactics professionals study logistics. Or shortly coaling stations. Focused shorts like Hornblower's involvement in his last Napoleonic affair are possible but I don't see a way to keep these characters going on all that much farther and in focus at sea.

I'd be prepared to accept Stephen in general in much of the world at the time period - communication, file sharing, data retrieval and imaging being what they were I'd allow - willing suspension of disbelief at least - about any plausible recognition or failure to recognize. Certainly some intelligence people had heard of Stephen but any given intelligence person may have been replaced with the post Waterloo changes in government - or not.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. tonyz
Jack does have high command in The Mauritius Command, where he and Stephen talk a lot about the difficulties of dealing with people who are God on their own quarterdeck but have to be flunky to you.

I would have liked to see someone tackle it (and credits to Weber for his attempts with Honor Harrington, but he tends to make too much use of "we did this back then" retrospective conversations). It's not an easy job.

I suspect part of the problem is that not many SF writers have experience as high executives. (I am told that Doc Smith did, and it shows in some of the Lensman books. Any other good examples?)
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
I really must tackle this. I've started but am reluctant to say goodbye to them all so am dragging it out. I am pleased that Jack has missed Bonden already; like missing a limb - you can keep forgetting then noticing the absence.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
ClairedeT: I know exactly what you mean.

CEM: I'm interested to know about the Cochrane parallels, I know the trial earlier in Jack's life was based on him, but I didn't know about this.

I don't think, in the time and place, Stephen's continued spying is implasible. It's not as if he goes on missions into French territory after they know.
10. reaeverywhereelse
The capture of Valdivia and the cutting out of the Esmerelda are indeed Cochrane's actions, so the whole series comes full circle from Master & Commander.

As an aside, note that Bernard Cornwell also had his Sharpe character fight at Valdivia.
Pamela Adams
11. Pam Adams
I think I'm just going to start again from the beginning. Now that I've developed a weekly Jack and Stephen habit, I can't stop.
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
#6 - I'd suggest there are a fair number of examples among SF writers who do books involving the military.

Tom Kratman goes into training and logistics at some length rather I suspect both as it is (and ever will be?) and as he wishes it were or in some improved form.

Jerry Pournelle with his Dr. Dr. Pournelle persona has had some administrative responsibilities in city government and academia as well as significant responsibilitiy and some authority (taking a company check with him to look at the Dean Drive) in aerospace companies.

Both these writers have seen the view from the bottom and from the top - some others have only view or the other.

FREX one writer of both military SF and space opera who served enlisted in Vietnam during the hostilities has his name on a book jointly with a ring knocker who achieved rank and fame as a cold warrior. While explicitly acknowledging the retired officer knew things the enlisted never would the Vietnam veteran suggested the officer never laagered in indian country and that too showed in the first draft.

I suspect writing about the problems of successful sailing navy flag officers is both difficult to research - Pepys diary and what else? - and hard to make exciting.

The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell may be a good movie; Swede Momsen gets the mail through is not what Momsen is remembered for.

There's some real authority among the great scientists who have written SF - but that's mostly clever but infrequent short stories maybe Bob Forward excepted.
13. reaeverywhereelse
The Napoleonic sea story genre was founded by Frederick Marryat, one of Cochrane's midshipmen who rose to post-captain before resigning to become full-time novelist. That may have something to do with why Cochrane's career is so often mined for material by Marryat's successors.
14. peachy
It's entirely possible to do engrossing fiction with a hero in high command (he says whilst searching his memory frantically for an example. Weber? I haven't read any of them since Harrington was promoted.) But I think Forester followed the more common path - finally, begrudgingly, promote his hero to high command, and then find every possible excuse to thrust him into situations that could have been handled by a competent commander. In Lord Hornblower, he effectively takes command of a sloop, then mucks about on shore; in Hornblower in the West Indies he's almost always supervising either a single ship or an operation on land. The Commodore is an exception, I suppose - a lot of the action involves squadron command - but even there Forester finds occasion to fling him ashore at the siege of Riga.

My guess as to the Cochrane love is that he's the perfect real-life example of a naval fiction hero - he does all kinds of truly spectacular things, but one way or another he irritates enough people to torpedo his chances for conventional advancement, which compels him to do even more spectacular things to make up for it. Cochrane's career written as fiction would stretch suspension of disbelief pretty far... :)
Pamela Adams
15. Pam Adams
Daniel Gallery of the USN wrote both fiction and non-fiction (mainstream). Most of the fiction depended on the younger officers and enlisted men- admirals were kind of the crotchety old farts in the background.
16. Donald Simmons
So Jo, what are you going to read next? Bernard Cornwell does a lot of good historical stuff (I recommend the Saxon novels).
Clark Myers
17. ClarkEMyers
Walter Karig who was a navy Captain - also wrote scripts for Victory at Sea - a series if you will - and a trio of Nancy Drew books among other things - Zotz is in genre though I read it only because I was also reading Karig's naval history - I didn't know it was filmed as special effects wonder until I checked the spelling today.

Samuel Elliot Morrison was a Rear Admiral (not a line officer special case) and a successful writer - Admiral of the Ocean Sea - but however fictional some of his writing might be his series are non-fiction.

Mr. Heinlein brushes against the issues in Citizen of the Galaxy where again good people either do work below their pay grade - Baslim - or want to.

As for Gallery the capture of the U-505 has been written up and more or less filmed widely. As admiral organizing a steel band for morale and community relations not so much.
Pamela Adams
18. Pam Adams
I’m going to be looking at the “unfinished manuscript for Book 21” next week, and considering the series as a complete thing.
It would also be cool to have character-by-character discussions as you did for the Vorkosigan books.
19. HelenS
Is there a difference between "mizen" and "mizzen"? Seems to me sometimes O'Brian uses the former and sometimes the latter, and I've never known whether it was inadvertent or not.
Jim Hardy
20. JimZipCode
The one elegant thing about the series ending here, is that Jack and Stephen are forever dashing off to their next adventure. There is not a moment to be lost! It's like the ending to Peter Weir's movie, and a fitting way to leave them. I would have liked to see how POB would have wrapped this up, but this works too.

@ 2 - Forester did *not* have the foresight to start his series when Hornblower was a midshipman. Check your copyright dates. The first Hornblower books had him as a full captain: Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line, Flying Colours. Then Forester wrapped around again and wrote earlier adventures. In my opinion, you'd be crazy to read them in "fictional chronology order": they're very satisfying in published order, starting with Beat To Quarters.

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