(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Blue at the Mizzen is the twentieth volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, a saga about life in England’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The series opened in 1801 withMaster and Commander (1969), in which Lt. Jack Aubrey is promoted to commander and given control of his first warship. Blue at the Mizzen brings Aubrey’s career to a new stage. At the beginning of the story, he is a senior post captain and skipper of the HMS Surprise; at the end he is promoted to admiral. The story picks up exactly where the previous volume, The Hundred Days(1998), ended. Napoleon I has been defeated at Waterloo, Belgium, and the long, desperate struggle with Republican and Imperial France is over. Two dominant strands of the saga therefore reach their logical conclusion: the career of a warship’s captain and the struggle against tyranny. At the same time, the themes of friendship and family, which are central to the social texture of the series, grow increasingly poignant and salient as a tone of closure enters the saga. Moreover, O’Brian died on January 2, 2000, leaving the manuscript for the next episode uncompleted. Aubrey and Maturin will sail no farther.

Accordingly, the book is likely to move O’Brian’s fans deeply. It is among his best. He not only freshens the familiar themes but also does so with his accustomed humorous dialogue, gentle irony, nautical erudition, and the associated recondite vocabulary of seafaring. He zestfully describes storms and battles that strike landlubber readers as truly daunting. Moreover, as the story unfolds, so many allusions are made to previous episodes in the long saga and so many names of long-gone shipmates appear that the book can nearly stand as an index to the entire series. While the references may delight fans, these very elements are likely to discourage readers new to O’Brian and may bewilder fans who have not devoted themselves sufficiently to the life and times of Aubrey and Maturin. Only those who have read the entire series, for example, will understand Aubrey’s mourning Barrett Bonden, the coxswain of his gig who was killed in the previous episode, or Maturin’s despair over the death of his wife Dianna, even though they seldom saw each other and shared few intellectual interests.

The story opens in the Royal Navy’s base at Gibraltar, Spain. Aubrey distributes prize money to his crew from the capture of an enemy treasure ship. The good fortune, however, only leads to trouble. Flush with money and the celebration of victory, the sailors either desert or participate in a drunken riot on the base. Aubrey is disgusted and depressed by his men’s behavior, as is Maturin, who is already despondent over Dianna’s death. Both are relieved to sail on a long-delayed voyage to Chile aboard the Surprise, which is manned by a loyal core of experienced men. Ostensibly, Aubrey is to conduct a hydrographic survey of the poorly mapped coast there, but the primary mission is really to carry Maturin to meetings with the revolutionary juntas who are marshalling strength for a rebellion against Spain. The voyage nearly ends in disaster at the outset. On the first night at sea, during a violent storm, the Surprise collides with a merchant vessel. Only heroic efforts bring the ship back to Gibraltar, and after temporary repairs, it sails for Funchal in Madeira for permanent repairs. The ship’s captain and crew arrive to find the port city burning and the docks in ruins. Aubrey decides to sail to England for the repairs, and Maturin, who is impatient for recent information about the Chileans, sails ahead in the ship’s companion vessel, the sloop Ringle.

Reunited in England, Aubrey and Maturin visit their family members, including the captain’s wife Sophie, his daughters, his son, and the surgeon’s daughter Brigid, as well as a multitude of shipmates and relations. For fans of the series, the England scenes are like grand reunions, bubbling with good humor, because almost each person encountered brings to mind an earlier book. They also meet Prince William (later King William IV), who prevails upon Aubrey to accept his illegitimate son, Horatio Fitzroy Hanson, as a midshipman. Aubrey and Maturin at last depart with a replenished crew, hastened on their way by news that Sir David Lindsay, a maverick Royal Navy officer, has been hired by a faction of Chileans to command a tiny navy....

(The entire section is 1810 words.)