Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
The book starts out with Jack, reduced to half pay while he awaits a command, surrounded by his family (and mother in law) in a shabby English country “estate” where he is proving unequivocally that he does not have the makings of a farmer.
One day his friend Steven visits and announces that Jack will receive orders and a command. Jack’s assignment: assume command of a small fleet and retake two islands in the Indian Ocean from the French. Jack and Steven depart and over the next several weeks the fleet is gathered, Jack’s orders become more explicit, and we learn that the captains under Jacks command are a mixed lot.
In the course of the book we are exposed to some of the most intense psychological profiling yet in the Aubrey/Maturin series. The chief player here is Steven with his powers of observation. We learn quickly how Jack differs from other leaders. We also see graphically described how ships, over time, take on the personality and character of their captains.
The characters studies are unflinching. Because of this the reader becomes increasingly concerned about the outcome of the whole venture. These fears are not misplaced as disaster piles upon disaster as the action proceeds and Jack’s powers as a captain and commander are put to the test.
Not only are the character studies complex and piercing, but the naval action, gunnery, close quarters combat, and fog of battle as Jack must “sit back” and observe the performance of his men are truly intense.
One departure from earlier books in the series (this is number four) is that Steven spends much of his time in ships other than Jack’s; this is the source of much intense character analysis as Steven learns about shipboard life under captains other than Jack. We also learn more about Steven and his political and undercover roles as he works through elements of psychological warfare that he will employ once he reaches his destination.
My only negative experience with this book was that I had difficulty keeping track of the complex action that occurs near the close of the book. Many different ships are involved as are many different locations around the islands that are the subject of the campaign. At times I had trouble keeping track of what was happening. But that was minor compared with the overall quality - this is the most complex book in the series so far and, in my opinion, the most rewarding.