This is the second book in the series of Aubrey-Maturin British Navy – Napoleonic Wars books; I previously read this book in August of 2001, and again in November of 2006. One does not have to have read the first book in the series, Master and Commander, to know what is going on, but as each book in some measure builds upon the previous book, I would recommend reading the books in order.
In this book, which opens during the Peace of Amiens, Aubrey (a commander, and flush with money) takes a house in Sussex with Maturin, fairly near to Mapes Court, the home of the Williams girls (oldest one named Sophie), their domineering mother, and Diana Villiers, a cousin of the family who had gone out to India, was widowed, and is at home living with her relations. Sophie is blond, obedient to her mother, and conventionally pretty, while cousin Diana is a dark-haired woman who delights in upsetting conventions. Aubrey is attracted to Sophie, but the total bankruptcy of his prize agent and a couple of contested captures by his ship before the Peace having gone against him, he is rendered not only penniless but in serious debt, and in danger of being tossed into debtor’s prison. As Mrs. Williams, who had accepted a dashing rich commander, but wants her daughter to have nothing to do with a penniless commander, also refuses to let Sophie see Aubrey, Maturin carries him off to France, where they are when Bonaparte ends the Peace and orders all British subjects interned.
To tell more of the story would be telling; but it is probably not going to be a spoiler (I hate spoilers in book and movie reviews with a white-hot passion) that Jack Aubrey eventually becomes a Post Captain (i.e., a Captain by name, not just by courtesy, which means he will become an Admiral if he lives long enough), and that he is attracted romantically to Sophie and sexually to her cousin Diana, whom Maturin loves rather hopelessly from afar. This situation causes a great deal of tension between Aubrey and Maturin, not helped by Aubrey being on an unhappy ship. And Maturin continues his double life (if not triple and quadruple life) of being a naval surgeon, a gifted doctor, a skilled naturalist, and one of the best spies in Spain and Ireland (being of both Catalan and Irish ancestry) that Whitehall possesses. In a political sidebar, General Aubrey (Aubrey’s father, who is father to a young boy by a young wife who was formerly a milkmaid), a rabid Tory, buys a borough and harangues Parliament with speeches about the ills of the Navy; as most of the Navy is solidly Whig, including those who make naval decisions, this does not bode well for Aubrey’s Naval career.
The next book in the series is H.M.S. Surprise, which I will begin reading (rather, re-reading) quite soon.