An excellent gift to the fans of Patrick O'Brian but, I am sure, of little interest to anyone else. Certainly it would be the worst possible introduction to O'Brian's wonderful nautical fiction. But for those of us who have for years read and re-read his tales, so beautifully written and so infused with the great friendship between his two central characters, this fragment of O'Brian's intended twenty-first novel in the series allows us to pay one last visit to these two fascinating men. And happily we find them in a time of comparative joy and leisure. Gentle humor abounds as Aubrey and Maturin tease one another, based on their sure knowledge of one another's quirks and modes of thought. Although it seems certain that the typewritten manuscript of the these three, rather short chapters would have received further polishing and likely substantial additions before the book was completed, what we have is not only recognizable, but very characteristic O'Brian prose, often illuminated by the choice of exactly the right adjective that is at once both unexpected and yet revealed as inevitable. I would go so far as to argue that even as it stands, the writing here more nearly approaches that of O'Brian's best books than that of at least the last few novels.
A unique feature of this final book is that it presents the printed text face-to-face with O'Brian's handwritten draft for that same text, and it can be fascinating to see how the prose evolved from pen to typewritten versions. But the typewritten text ended with still several handwritten pages yet to go, and the publishers have elected to present those last pages as they were found without transcription into print. As a previous reviewer noted, deciphering those handwritten passages can be a thorny task (after a week of it, there are still a number of words I can claim to read only tentatively and a few not at all). But I think the publisher was right in not attempting to integrate those last handwritten pages into the printed text drawn directly from what had already been typed up by O'Brian. First, there would have been a problem of continuity. As O'Brian worked on his manuscript, changes were being made in the storyline so that the remaining handwritten pages do not really reflect plot developments that had been typed up. And perhaps more importantly, much of this last handwritten portion bears evidence of being a rapidly written first draft, sketching out the storyline more than attempting to create anything close to an envisioned final version; some words are omitted, some are unintentionally repeated. Undoubtedly, these imperfections in these last few pages would have been corrected if O'Brian had had the opportunity to redraft them by hand (as seems to have been his usual working method) or typewriter, but for the publisher to transfer them into print would have required either a heavy hand in editing - thus departing unfortunately far from the O'Brian original - or acceptance of a stylistically incompatible finale. No, all in all I agree with the publisher's decision to leave these last several pages in O'Brian's own handwriting. For those of us sufficiently interested, decipherment at least to the extent of following the storyline is not too difficult a job, and it is a task that ultimately brings us closer to this most favored of authors as, in his last days, he once again sailed in company with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
One final note: if given a choice between obtaining the American edition of this book published by Norton or the British edition issued by HarperCollins, I would suggest the latter. Although the Patrick O'Brian content of the two is the same, the UK edition also contains an illuminating introduction by William Waldegrave and, perhaps even more pleasing, it is printed on a superior paper stock for clarity and simply more luxurious feel.