Back on dry land, and getting wet

Christina Hardyment finds love in the swamp on the latest stage of an epic voyage
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The Independent Culture

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (HarperCollins £#163;16.99)

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (HarperCollins £#163;16.99)

IF YOU haven't read the previous 19 novels in the long saga of John Aubrey's and Stephen Maturin's adventures, Blue At The Mizzen is not for you. Go and buy Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O'Brian's hugely popular series about nautical folk in the age of Nelson. If you have been waiting for his next book since you finished his last one, then the title alone will tempt to a celebration. We all know that Jack Aubrey longs for a post as Admiral of the Blue above all else. But knowing O'Brian's wily ways with titles and plots (think of The Yellow Admiral), few faithful readers will settle down confidently expecting a smooth voyage culminating in success.

The opening chapter sees the Surprise nearly wrecked by an unlighted trading hulk off Gibraltar and her crew disappearing like rats with the prize money they gained at the end of the last book, The Hundred Days. When she does eventually take off on the long-planned hydrographical voyage to Chile, Aubrey is encumbered with a royal by-below, who could become a dangerous liability. And although Surprise rounds the Horn despite perilous weather, there is no guarantee at all that she will return unscathed.

The pace of the novel is, it has to be said, ambulatory rather than hectic. O'Brian is watching his characters live out their lives rather than interfering. But life in the doldrums has its compensations. Horatio Hanson is a fine new character whose zest marks him as set to endure. I can't wait for him to meet Jack's scallywag of a son George, who is, we hear, causing Heneage Dundas much grief.

The Lisbon packet, painted bright blue and kitted out as a New World survey ship full of adventurous naturalists, is an excellent conceit. There are the now mandatory memorable meals, though the banquet of seal steak is not for the squeamish. And there is, ultimately, action: a brilliantly conceived sortie from Valparaiso and an unexpected follow-through executed with Jack Aubrey's typical dash.

There also seems to be amatory consolation on the horizon for Stephen Maturin, surgeon, naturalist and secret agent, whose wife Diana - in a shock twist worthy of EastEnders - was so cruelly destroyed in the last book. Christine Wood is almost too good to be true - the sister of an old friend, widowed and wealthy, and with such a passion for natural history that she cheerfully strips off with him to hunt rarees more effectively in the swamps of Sierra Leone. I found the mutual delousing session in the buff hard to swallow, but knowing O'Brian's delight in authenticity, there is no doubt a description of just such an unlikely account of love among the butterflies in some contemporary English lady traveller's memoirs. But will she accept Stephen's proposal? And how will Brigid, his little daughter, accept her?

Finally, since the book doesn't so much end as stop for a rest, addicts can hope for another instalment before long. And for those losing track of the now gargantuan cast of people and vessels, an O'Brian Companion is, so HarperCollins tells me, in the pipeline for October 2000.