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

Ain’t I elegant? Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour

Central to Treason’s Harbour, the ninth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, is a young Italian woman in a courtyard with a lemon tree. There are ships, of course, and the French, and there’s Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the Irish surgeon Stephen Maturin, and this is a good solid installment in the series that moves it along. I don’t suppose it would hurt to start here, but I wouldn’t especially recommend it either.

Laura Fielding is a young beautiful Italian woman married to an English naval officer taken prisoner by the French. She lives in Malta. She’s being manipulated by the French to give them information, in return for his safety. She has a big dog, Pongo, to protect her, and she has a house with a lemon tree in the courtyard where she gives musical parties, serving lemonade. She also gives Italian lessons. She gets entangled with both Jack and Stephen, and both of them suffer from being thought to be having an affair with her, though neither of them do.

There is a gap of a few weeks between the end of The Ionian Mission and the beginning of Treason’s Harbour, enough time for Jack to have completed the conquest of Kitali and been rewarded by the Sultan of Constantinople for defeating the Torgud with a chelenk, a most unusual decoration containing clockwork and diamonds. We are in Malta, and deep in intrigue as the book begins—Jack is happily showing off his chelenk and drinking, but Stephen is consulting Professor Graham and the French are watching him. This is the book where Wray is revealed to be a spy as well as an enemy, and Wray makes two plans to destroy Jack and Stephen, both of which almost succeed.

The first is a trip to the Red Sea to intercept a treasure ship, which includes an overland march at Suez. There are many lovely things about this adventure, but the best is Stephen’s diving bell. It weighs two tons, and Jack is horrified until he hears it comes apart. It allows Stephen to rescue the sunken chests of supposed treasure, and to walk on the sea bed exploring the natural history, but best of all it allows him to say “I am a urinator!” and embarrass Jack, who naturally misunderstands. Then there’s Rev. Martin coming aboard to chat to Stephen and then discovering far too late that the ship has set sail and is far out of sight of land. There’s the translator stealing Jack’s chelenk and then being eaten by sharks in front of everyone. There are the overland marches, at night, through the desert.

This whole mission is a trap, the French know all about it, if Jack wasn’t brave and fast and less greedy than he might be, they’d have been captured or killed. Jack starts to wonder if he has lost his luck.

The second trap is a clever ambush at Zumbra that does kill Admiral Harte, Wray’s father-in-law—from whom Wray is due to inherit. The Surprise only avoids being destroyed by luck and good seamanship. This escape is the happy ending, in so far as the book has one, and it closes this Mediterranean parenthesis in Jack’s career—the Surprise is to be sailed back to England and there sold out of the service.

Most of the book is spent ashore, and ashore at Malta, among French spies and British spies and with Laura Fielding always in the middle. Stephen plays cards with Wray endlessly, winning huge sums of money from him. He has no idea at this point that Wray is a spy, but Wray knows that Stephen is, he has been told by his French contact Leseur, who of course knows it from Johnson and the Americans. Stephen uses Laura, but he also tries to protect her—and at the end, when he learns that her husband has escaped and that the French will therefore kill her immediately, he manages to save her life and get her aboard to take her to Gibraltar.

I don’t think I stopped for so much as to draw breath between The Ionian Mission and this, nor between this and The Far Side of the World. I get to a certain point in this series and it is as if I am swept out to sea with them and the thought of stopping to read something else just seems silly.

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.


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