Yes, I’m still in the thick of this series. It became apparent quite a while ago that I won”t manage to get to 200 books this year, but I’d like to get to 180. I’m around 176 right now. One of the best ways for me to manage a lot of volume is to read a series I love. Besides, some of these, I can polish off in a few hours.
The Reverse of the Medal was an extremely fast read for me and one of my favorites in this series. It’s probably the only book in the series that takes place entirely on land (I think) In some ways, that makes it more interesting, because much as I enjoy the shipboard life that’s normally portrayed, it can get a bit monotonous (much like it probably did for sailors of that time, or maybe of any time)
This is the book in which everything goes wrong. As we already know, Jack Aubrey’s financial situation is a mess. He’s been taken in by a con artist, and is embroiled in endless legal proceedings, the outcome of which could easily ruin him.
He meets an interesting stranger at an inn, just off the packet from Calais. Ellis Palmer, as he calls himself, contrives to meet Jack through on engineered altercation, and then gains his trust by claiming to know Stephen Maturin. He professes to have inside information about imminent peace with France and offers Jack a “confidential” tip. He advises him to buy certain stocks as quickly as possible, and he’ll make a killing when the stock market explodes once peace is declared.
As we already know, Jack is highly competent at sea, and just about the opposite on land. Not only does he go forth and buy as much stock as he can, he tells his disreputable father and his even more disreputable cronies about it.
In the meantime, Stephen has arrived back in London to find The Grapes- the inn where he used to keep a semi-permanent residence- burned to the ground. When he goes to his house, expecting to find his wife, he learns that she has decamped to Sweden with their mutual friend, the gorgeous but somewhat dim Lithuanian hussar Jagiello. She’s left a letter for Stephen, saying that he humiliated her by cavorting in public with a red-headed Italian woman on Malta.
We of course know that Laura Fielding, the Italian woman was a reluctant French spy that Stephen was using to feed false information to French intelligence. At first, it’s unclear whether or not Diana (Mrs. Maturin) took off before or after receiving his letter of explanation. (It turns out she left before. Ouch!) On top of this, Stephen is in possession of a box full of extremely valuable financial instruments which he needs to get to someone reliable in British Intelligence. Easier said than done.
The responsible intelligence officer Wray (who we already know is a highly placed mole working for the French) is making himself scarce because he owes Stephen a big gambling debt. Stephen finally gives up on Wray and leaves his box with his mentor Sir Joseph Blaine who believes he may be able to use its contents to flush out the mole.
Happily at home with his wife, Jack is suddenly arrested for fraudulently trading in stocks. It immediately becomes clear that he’s been caught between his troublemaker father and his father’s political opponents, who clearly engineered the whole situation to set the Aubreys up.
Stephen takes matters in hand, getting a good lawyer for Jack and trying to find the fictional Ellis Palmer. Palmer unfortunately turns up dead and Jack is a difficult client. He has a rather simplistic understanding of the law, and believes that a jury will simply believe him when he tells them the truth. The jury unfortunately, is made up of businessmen who are distinctly unsympathetic to Jack’s situation.
Seeing how badly things are going and that Jack is likely to be kicked out of the Navy, Stephen hightails it to Plymouth where Jack’s beloved frigate Surprise is being put up for auction. He’s inherited a crazy amount of money and buys it outright. He’s convinced that Jack will die if he can’t be at sea, and he’s probably right.
Jack is found guilty (his father and cronies nowhere to be found) and is sentenced to the pillory. It’s just an hour, but it can be bad. Fortunately, a lot of Royal Navy ships are in port and when the seamen and officers hear about what’s happened, they converge on the square where Jack is serving his sentence, cheering him on in an extremely moving show of respect. (I cried)
In the meantime, Stephen helps out a French agent of his acquaintace who is trying to flee to Canada. In exchange, the agent gives him the names of Wray and Ledward the two French moles, and betrays them right in front of Stephen and Sir Jospeh.
We don’t get to find out how that’s resolved, but we do know that, even though Jack’s been kicked out of the Navy, he’ll have a ship, along with letters of marque provided by Sir Joseph, so he can go privateering. Stephen is the best friend ever and this book was positively thrilling, considering the complete lack of naval action.