The third entry in the Aubrey/Maturin saga picks up where the action left off in Post Captain. The friendship between Aubrey and Maturin that was seriously strained in Post Captain continues to flourish. Existing characters are further developed and new characters introduced and developed. The reader follows the philosophical thoughts of Maturin and the simpler thoughts of Aubrey. In the meantime there is sufficient naval action to carry the philosophizing and character development.
HMS Surprise is serious and philosophical while being earthy and funny. Referring to an intoxicated animal, Maturin delivers the most hilarious line that I remember reading in a novel, "Jack, you have debauched my sloth." At the same time Maturin's ponderings are on a higher level. So the novel oscillates between the down to earth and the ethereal. O'Brian never goes over the top one way or the other. For instance, Maturin is tortured early in the novel. The reader is spared the details. While not describing the torture, O'Brian has accentuated its horror by using peoples' reactions to his injured body. O'Brian also makes points very subtly and one can miss things because of the way that they are revealed matter of factly.
There is a lot of depth (no pun intended) to the novel. One theme that resonated was the faith that the two men have in each other's specialties. Aubrey believes that Maturin can cure anything while Maturin is only too aware of the limits of early 19th century medicine. Conversely, Maturin believes that Aubrey can work miracles with the ships at his command. O'Brian's presentation was as relevant for the day it was written as it was for 1800 and is still today. On one hand we have an unrealistic faith in modern medicine. On the other we are presented with an unrealistic belief in modern technology. While medicine and technology appear to be miraculous and without limits in their capabilities, the practitioners in those disciplines know their limitations all too well. Similarly, there are many themes that O'Brian explores deftly using a long voyage as the backdrop.
The sailing story is superb although it has fewer broadsides per page that most of its counterparts in the genre. My favourite description is of a storm while rounding the Cape of Good Hope during the voyage to India. Throughout the novel tension builds from the spectre of Admiral Linois, who captured Aubrey in Master and Commander, in the Indian Ocean. Will Linois prevail a second time in their inevitable encounter or will Aubrey use all of his formidable skills to defeat the Frenchman?
HMS Surprise seems typical of the Aubrey/Maturin series in that it requires some commitment to read through. It is not a quick, instant gratification read but it is a very satisfying one. The novel is well worth the effort that a reader of serious historical fiction must put into it.