Patrick O'Brian,
The Reverse of the Medal
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1986;
W.W. Norton, 1992)

Capt. Aubrey, known to his men as "Lucky Jack," is brought low in The Reverse of the Medal, which follows hard on the heels of The Far Side of the World.

But it is not an enemy frigate that bests him, nor a shallow reef or tempest at sea. The fruitless chase that begins the book is negligible in comparison to what awaits him ashore. Aubrey is ordered home to England, where his beloved wife waits for him and his precious ship, HMS Surprise, is to be decommissioned and sold. A mountain of debts makes his homecoming less than cheery, and Aubrey leaps at the chance afforded by a wise tip on a lucrative investment.

But Aubrey has been set up in an effort to discredit his radical and politically minded father. And soon, the brave captain finds himself pacing the cramped quarters of a cell and facing a hostile court and trial. A canny seaman, he proves a bit naive for the political machinations and betrayals that lie in store.

The drama here is focused on land, rather than Aubrey's usual milieu, the sea. O'Brian avoids the dreary tedium of the early 19th-century English courts, however; official legal actions take place off the page while he expounds instead on the actions of Aubrey's close friend, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, who is a master of information gathering and behind-the-scenes intrigue. The final outcome of Aubrey's trial is a peak moment of the book.

I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point in the series -- after all, Aubrey has his finest moments at sea, not locked in legal struggles ashore -- but this was only my second visit to O'Brian's world and already the characters seem real and their experiences are absorbing.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 24 July 2004

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