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

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

Blue 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.


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