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

Shaken down so well: Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen Gun Salute

The Thirteen Gun Salute is the thirteenth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s one of my favourites. It’s here we begin the great voyage out of time which will not be completed until the beginning of The Commodore in five books time. If you can start anywhere, you can start here, but I still think it’s best to begin at the beginning—starting here will give you spoilers for things earlier in the series that it’s better to come to at their own pace. But this certainly begins a sequence and would be a possible beginning.

Spoilers below.

This isn’t a particularly long book, but there’s a remarkable amount in it. It begins in a traditional way for the series, a little while after the previous volume and with a departure. The Surprise leaves Shelmerston for Peru and Chile. We’re going to get there too, and in  Surprise, but not in this book. Unusually, after the scene of departure, the action backs up to explain why they have put to sea. Jack is not yet reinstated, Wray and Ledward are still being malevolent, Jack has been indiscreet and would be better at sea. They make it as far as Lisbon, where Sir Joseph Blaine himself intercepts them, explains that their enemies have caused rumours of their mission that would prevent it, reinstates Jack in the Navy and assigns him to Diane, the ship the Surprises cut out in The Letter of Marque. They agree to meet up with Surprise, which will sail under Pullings, and carry out their original mission later.

Meanwhile, the Diane sets off to take an envoy to Borneo. There’s a way in which the rest of the book can be seen as a reprise of H.M.S. Surprise in a different key. The main action is a commission to take an envoy to the Far East, and the envoy dies on a distant island. Making the comparison shows how much O’Brian has grown as a writer in the ten books, and ten years, since. Everyone is fully characterised here and has their own agenda. Fox and Stanhope are not just very different people, they are at different levels of complexity. Fox is obnoxious and bitter. We don’t have the romantic complications—Jack and Stephen seem thoroughly settled with their wives for a change.

There’s some of the best wildlife in the book, when Stephen visits a Buddhist mountaintop shrine and holds hands with an orangutan. There’s also the absolutely shuddersome scene where Wray and Ledward, having been discovered and disgraced and now openly working for the French, are not only killed but dissected by Stephen. A European spleen—ick. The first time I read this I wasn’t sure I wanted to know Stephen any more. Dissecting people one has played cards with seems very cold-blooded. And there is that side of Stephen and there always has been, lovable as he is.

The book ends with Fox’s mission successfully completed, but follows that with a shipwreck, so the final scene is of Jack and the Dianes on a desolate island planning to build a schooner out of the wreckage of the Diane. This isn’t a happy ending by any measure, but it’s a surprisingly satisfying one. It’s one of the best shipwrecks in the series. Indeed, everything in this book shows O’Brian at the top of his powers, dealing with long threads of plot that stretch forward and back, and showing us a new part of the world with Stephen’s fascination with the fauna and Jack’s with the sea and the people. There’s a lovely scene here where Jack lends money to Christy-Palliere’s nephew which shows very well who is an enemy and who isn’t—Napoleon is, and Wray and Ledward are, the French in general can be friends.

The first time I read it, I had read books set further ahead but could not get hold of The Nutmeg of Consolation, so I found the shipwrecked ending very much a cliffhanger and spent a long time trying to work out how matters could have got from here to the beginning of Clarissa Oakes. I was completely wrong, of course. I’m generally good at predicting plot, but O’Brian fools me every time. Indeed, because of the anxiety about what can happen O’Brian is a writer I far prefer re-reading to reading for the first time.

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 on January 18th, 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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