Patrick O’Brian: The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War by Patrick O'BrianThe Fortune of War picks up only a few days after where Desolation Island had ended, affirming my impession that by now we’re dealing with an ongoing single novel rather than a series of stringed-together separate novels.Which would make this the sixth chapter in O’Brian’s massive novel The Naval Adventures of Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin (a terminology I am going to stick with from now on. Probably.)

What is interesting about this volume in particular is how just when O’Brian seems to have settled down in a comfortable routine and has the novel chuffing along nicely he starts to mess with stuff and play around with his own formula (some slight spoiler in what is following are unfortunately unavoidable). The Fortune of War has a basic structure similar to HMS Surprise, i.e. we get a quiet stretch in the middle sandwiched between two action pieces of naval battle at the beginning and at the end of this chapter, all of it told with O’Brian’s customary verve and brio that keeps even those passages where nothing much is happening lively and interesting.

Against this foil of the familiar, then, the ways The Fortune of War deviates from business as usual contrast all the sharper – the most surprising to me at least being that Jack does not command a ship during the whole of this chapter, and that it are other Captains who fight the sea battles while he is just an onlooker or a minor participant. In fact he is unusually passive during all the events depicted here and we’re getting the unusual situation where Steve exercises considerably more agency than Jack does. This, after five chapters where things have been the other way round, gives a slightly off-kilter feeling to The Fortune of War, of things being just faintly out of balance and not in proper focus. It also expands the canvas of O’Brian’s novel even  more, by showing as a different perspective on a naval battle than the command deck or the surgeon’s cabin. In short, The Naval Adventures of Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin continue to delight, and even manage to spring the occasional surprise on the reader. I’m still wondering whether O’Brian will manage to keep this up over the remaining fourteen chapters, but I’m very eager to find out.

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