The year is 1815, and Europe's most unpopular (not to mention tiniest) empire-builder has escaped from Elba. In The Hundred Days
, it's up to Jack Aubrey--and surgeon-cum-spymaster Stephen Maturin--to stop Napoleon in his tracks. How? For starters, Aubrey and his squadron have been dispatched to the Adriatic coast, to keep Bonapartist shipbuilders from beefing up the French navy. Meanwhile, one Sheik Ibn Hazm is fomenting an Islamic uprising against the Allies. The only way to halt this maneuver is to intercept the sheik's shipment of gold--because in the Napoleonic era, as in our own, even the most ardent of mercenaries requires a salary.
The Hundred Days is the 19th (and, we are told, the penultimate) installment of O'Brian's epic. Like many of its predecessors, it features a fairly swashbuckling plot, complete with cannon fire, exotic disguises, and Aubrey's suspenseful, slow-motion pursuit of an Algerian xebek. Yet it never turns into a mere exercise in Hornblowerism. Partly this is due to O'Brian's delicate touch with character--the relationship between extroverted Aubrey and introverted Maturin has deepened with each book, and even Aubrey's reunion with his childhood companion Queenie Keith is full of novelistic nuance: "They sat smiling at one another. An odd pair: handsome creatures both, but they might have been of the same sex or neither." Nor does the author focus too exclusively on his dynamic duo. Indeed, The Hundred Days is very much a chronicle of a floating community, which Maturin describes as "his own village, his own ship's company, that complex entity so much more easily sensed than described: part of his natural habitat."
Finally, O'Brian shows his usual expertise in balancing the great events with the most minuscule ones. Other authors have written about battles at sea, and still others have recorded the rapid rise and fall of Napoleon's fortunes after his escape from confinement. But who else would give equal time--and an equal charge of delight--to Maturin's discovery of an anomalous nuthatch? --James Marcus
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From Publishers Weekly
The Aubrey-Maturin series (The Commodore, etc.) nears the two dozen mark the way it began, with colorful historical background, smooth plotting, marvelous characters and great style. The title refers to Napoleon's escape from Elba and brief return to power. Capt. Jack Aubrey must stop a Moorish galley, loaded with gold for Napoleon's mercenaries, from making its delivery. The action takes us into two seas and one ocean and continues nearly nonstop until the climax in the Atlantic. We're quickly reacquainted with the two heroes: handsome sea dog Jack Aubrey, by now a national hero, and Dr. Stephen Maturin, Basque-Irish ship's doctor, naturalist, English spy and hopelessly incompetent seaman. Nothing stays the same, alas: Jack has gained weight almost to obesity, and Stephen is desolated by the death of his dashing, beautiful wife?but they're still the best of friends, each often knowing what the other is thinking. The prose moves between the maritime sublime and the Austenish bon mot ("a man generally disliked is hardly apt to lavish good food and wine on those who despise him, and Ward's dinners were execrable"). There are some favorite old characters, notably Aubrey's steward, Preserved Killick: "ill-faced, ill-tempered, meagre, atrabilious, shrewish" and thoroughly amusing. Chief among entertaining newcomers is Dr. Amos Jacob, a Cainite Jew ("they derive their descent from the Kenites, who themselves have Abel's brother Cain as their common ancestor"), who comes from a family of jewel merchants and has an encyclopedic grasp of Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish languages (and politics). Jacob is as expert as Stephen at spying and even more of a landlubber. O'Brian continues to unroll a splendid Turkish rug of a saga, and if it seems unlikely that the sedentary Stephen would hunt lions in the Atlas mountains (with the Dey of Algiers!), O'Brian brings off even this narrative feat with aplomb.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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