• The Letter of Marque

  • Aubrey-Maturin Series, Book 12
  • By: Patrick O'Brian
  • Narrated by: Ric Jerrom
  • Length: 11 hrs and 12 mins
  • 4.9 out of 5 stars (64 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Captain Jack Aubrey, a brilliant and experienced officer, has been struck off the list of post-captains for a crime he did not commit. His old friend Stephen Maturin, usually cast as a ship's surgeon to mask his discreet activities on behalf of British intelligence, has bought for Aubrey his former ship the Surprise to command as a privateer, more politely termed a letter of marque. Together they sail on a desperate mission against the French, which, if successful, may redeem Aubrey from the private hell of his disgrace.

©1988 The Estate of the late Patrick O'Brian CBE (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

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Laudanum, Balloons, Privateers, Lucky Jack Aubrey

Early in The Letter of Marque (1988), the twelfth entry in Patrick O’Brian’s splendid age of sail series, a character thinks, “How delightful it is to be at sea once more.” Amen, this reader thinks, because the previous novel, The Reverse of the Medal (1986), takes place almost entirely ashore, and the books are most compelling at sea. In that 11th volume, Jack Aubrey was removed from the list of post-captains and expelled from the British navy for his (innocent) involvement in a stock manipulation scandal. To restore some zest for life in Jack, his friend Stephen Maturin (suddenly wealthy after inheriting a fortune) bought Jack’s old ship the Surprise and secured a letter of marque enabling Jack to go to sea as captain of a private man of war (don’t call it a privateer in front of Jack!). Stephen has become, then, not only the ship’s surgeon, but also its owner.

Thus, the beginning of The Letter of Marque consists of Jack trying to mold the crew of the Surprise, about half of whom are former smugglers and privateers, the other half former Surprise men, into a capable, responsive, and well-moraled whole by going on a two-week trial voyage. Jack will integrate the different groups of men via rigorous gunnery practice. He’s also hoping for a reasonably challenging blow (storm) to further unite the diverse men. Through his intelligence (spy) connections, Stephen is able to inform Jack that the villains responsible for his scandal have escaped to France and that sensitive political considerations will prevent his being reinstated in the navy for a while. But it couldn't hurt his cause if Jack were to capture some prize ships, especially a French or American frigate of equal or greater size and strength to those of the Surprise (the War of 1812 is ongoing). And Stephen would like to score another intelligence coup against the Bonapartists of France. To help him sleep and deal with the pain of his wife Diana having absconded to Sweden with a handsome young officer, Stephen is also still prescribing himself laudanum, figuring that “it's no more injurious than smoking tobacco.” And the way that laudanum and hot air balloons converge in the novel is funny, scary, and moving.

As ever in his novels, O’Brian efficiently brings readers new to the series up to speed (without boring veteran readers) by sketching Jack and Stephen’s situations and their contrasting and complementary characters: big Jack is capable “Lucky Jack Aubrey” aboard ship but a gullible financially and legally entangled mark ashore, while small Stephen is a dyslexic seaman, a “perpetual lubber,” aboard ship but a shrewd agent on land. And both men have their respective instruments (violin and cello), love of classical music, and deep friendship, too. (They often refer to one another as “brother” or “dear.”)

Like all of O'Brian's novels, this one is a pleasure to read. It features early 19th-century politics, culture, nature, fauna, music, complex and appealing characters, witty and historically appropriate conversation, sudden and suspenseful action, and vivid depiction of being at sea in the age of sail. All of it excellently written.

There are many vivid sensual details of sailing on a ship:
“... choppy seas smacking against her starboard bow and streaming aft, mixed with the rain.”
“It was indeed the sweetest evening, balmy, a golden sky in the west, and a royal blue swell, white along the frigate's side and in her wake.”
“Everything looked superficially the same, the familiar sun-filled white curves above, the taught rigging and severe shadows...”
“…watching the distant battle as it moved slowly across the western sea in a night all the blacker for the flashes of the guns.”
“... The complex aroma, made up of scrubbed planks, fresh sea breeze, stale bilge water, tarred cordage, paint, and damp sailcloth.”

O’Brian has a dry sense of humor, too:

--“The landlord came back with a satisfied expression of one whose worst fears have been realized.”
--“It is a remarkable fact that in all my years at sea, I have never come across an incompetent carpenter.”

Unlike the tenth and eleventh novels, this twelfth one ends with a fair amount of closure, which is nice, while still leaving some loose ends to look forward to being tied up in future books. It is a fun, suspenseful, and moving novel. And Ric Jerrom is, as ever, the ideal reader for the audiobook, smoothly donning different accents, singing an infectious sailor-work song, and greatly enhancing the experience.

[SPOILER PARAGRAPH!]
Jack had been so unlucky in recent novels in the series that it was a relief to see him run into a big run of luck, both on sea and on land, for a change. And it was good to see Stephen with Diana again.

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  • Trevor
  • 05-07-17

Fine story, masterly narration

Another great yarn from Patrick O'Brian. The books become more and more enjoyable as one gets to know the characters, something that is made much easier by Ric Jerrom's wonderful narration.

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  • Mr
  • 06-20-15

I've read them all...

...now I'm listening to them all. Fantastic yarns with magnificent detail and extremely well read.

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  • Clare C
  • 01-18-15

The joyful Surprise

So Jack Aubrey is back in his rightful place in the Surprise and the luck is back with him and the ship.
Probably my 20th time of reading and listening to these wonderful tales and I am whisked away on deck. Fabulous storytelling in every way!

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  • Alan
  • 02-16-14

Top Marques

Would you listen to The Letter of Marque again? Why?

Yes. It is the kind of book you get lost in. The characters can be believed and you can see them in your minds eye

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Letter of Marque?

The emotional turmoil of Stephen Maturin and the character of Diana.

What about Ric Jerrom’s performance did you like?

Excellent I liked everything. He made the characters live. A good story well read and written

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

Love favours the bold

Any additional comments?

O'Brien had such a good way of writing and a gauntlet of characters. The emotions are believable and he writes with depth of feeling, Thoroughly recommend the talking book.

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  • Mrs A J
  • 09-09-22

Excellent

Superbly narrated as always, and another fascinating story in this series. Very highly recommend book.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-05-22

Let down by the recording

Another fine tale but disturbed by the fading at the start of many sentences. So much so that by the final chapter it was spoiling the broad gist of the meaning.
Quite unacceptable, a very poor standard of recording which should have easily been detected and corrected with an adequate process of reviewing yet it persisted through most of the book.

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  • polymath
  • 05-07-22

Best yet

This plot was brilliant as it spanned not only sea-faring derring-do but also politics and love! As always woderful quality of narration by Ric Jerrom.

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  • Andrew Finnerty
  • 10-13-21

Absolutely excellent.

Ric Jerrom excels here. He is by far the best narrator of the Aubrey Maturin series. Patrick O Brien wrote the series masterfully and Mr Jerrom brings the characters to life.

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  • A. Moore
  • 05-22-21

another great story.

o'Brian is the absolute master of the naval yarn, in the footsteps of Forester. what an epic journey the series creates! quite remarkable. best listened to in sequence perhaps. only one tiny quibble: ric Jerrom is an excellent narrator, with a great range of voices and accents but he clearly does not speak French, and the mispronunciations are mildly annoying and should have been picked up. otherwise, perfection.

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  • colin mckenzie
  • 05-11-21

great story and very well read

but what has gone wrong with audible? the chapter headings on this book don't match the screen display, and I could not get it to sync with alexa. when I moved from Alexa to my car I lost my place completely

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  • Roderic
  • 01-27-20

Still enjoying the series

One is easily captured by the stories of the two main characters, Aubrey and Maturin. I risk making them too real in my mind. My one regret is that at the time of this second reading of the series I have not gained much more knowledge of naval facts or strategies and hence some of the details described "wash over me" if you will excuse the pun.

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  • toby baxter
  • 08-10-22

BEST YET

Loved it because Jack was at sea a lot more which make the storyline more enjoyable.