At one point while I was reading Patrick O'Brian's The Hundred Days, I had the idea that my review would simply be a listing of all the words or phrases I looked up after I'd finished reading it. Then it would fall to you to piece what the book was about based on the words. Upon reflection, I decided that wouldn't be fun for anyone.
So here we are. The Hundred Days is, if I counted correctly, the 19th book in O'Brian's series of novels about Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin. The one you might be familiar with is Master and Commander, which was turned into a movie starring Russell Crowe. This is the first one of the series I've read, which does work against it at times.
Set in 1815, after Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris, the book follows Commodore Aubrey and his ship's doctor Maturin as they attempt to keep Napoleon from gaining allies in his battles. British Intelligence has learned there are some Muslim mercenaries prepared to drive a wedge between the Russian and Austrian forces slowly making their way west. The idea being they will delay those forces, allowing Napoleon to deal with Wellington and Bluecher's forces in the Low Countries. However, since these are mercs, they won't make a move until they (or their ruler) gets paid. So the goal is to stop the payment from reaching its destination, along with destroying any ships being built which might be turned over to Bonapartists, and protecting shipping.
A tall order, but Maturin is familiar with intelligence work, and he and another associate in the medical business do much of the work. Between them, they convince an undecided French captain to surrender his vessel, stir unrest amongst the workers in the shipyards, and track down where, when, and how the gold is being shipped.
The pace of the book mirrors what I would think life on a ship was like. There are long periods where nothing much happens, with sporadic outbursts of action which usually end quickly. There are certainly more pages devoted to Aubrey, Maturin, and their friends having fine dinners together on the Surprise, than there is to ship-to-ship combat. I think O'Brian's writing is simply more character-oriented, and things happen largely to reveal different facets of the characters. How does Aubrey (and Maturin's) steward, Killick react when he makes a drunken fool of himself and draws the ire of the entire ship? How does Maturin cope with the recent death of his wife, and being so far from his daughter? How does Aubrey cope with all the challenges set before him? The other possibility is O'Brian knows the battles are rather formulaic, so it's simply better to focus on the pasts of the different folks inhabiting the ship.
There are certain things I noticed I assume are an attempt to mirror the attitudes and codes of conduct of the times. Though characters die, including some the survivors knew well and had served with for some time, little time is spent in reflection on it. I imagine that death was an accepted part of service, so the sailors had grown accustomed to seeing friends pass. Oddly, the one person whose name keeps coming up is a Governor Wood of Sierra Leone, who was dead before the book even started, but was so widely known (and liked) that his passing is discussed on multiple occasions. It's strange, because he has no bearing on the story I can see, but he keeps being mentioned. The other thing was that even when someone had important information for another character, the two would waste time discussing what had gone on since they'd last seen each other, or they'd settle in for a snack of toasted cheese and wine. It seemed a startling lack of urgency, especially considering how desperately, for example, Maturin wishes to relay to Aubrey what he learned during his meetings with the Vizer and Dey.
The two bits I found most interesting were the idea of using a doctor for intelligence work, and the Hand of Glory. With the former, I assume Maturin's being a medical man provides him with colleagues the world over, it implies a certain attention to detail, and it's coupled with a knowledge of a fair number of languages, which would prove valuable. Since I'm coming into the series in the middle, I don't know if Maturin received training (I think they at least taught him ciphers, but maybe he learned it at school), but I wouldn't be surprised if they simply requested he help them, and trusted him to know how to tread carefully.
As to the Hand of Glory, Maturin's associate presents him with a preserved hand demonstrating palmar aponeurosis. They take it back to the ship to dissect it. It's quickly dubbed the Hand of Glory and considered a good luck charm. What's strange to me is the way it's described a Hand of Glory is the hand a killer uses to slash their victims throats, which is chopped off after they are hung. The idea having a dead killer's hand on the ship is a good thing strikes doesn't make much sense to me, but it leads to an amusing moment partway through, where we learn that a) sailors will drink anything, and b) to not leave hands out to dry on a table when there's a dog on the ship.
It's unclear to me whether Aubrey completing his mission did anything to hurry Napoleon's downfall. I don't believe it did, but I imagine that isn't the point. The point is he and his crew did their duty to the best of their ability, in service of the Crown. The end of the book points to Chile, which I guess is where the next book would take place, and possible issues for the main characters. It wasn't a bad book, and I greatly appreciate the vocabulary lesson, but I won't be hunting for the next one in the series. I didn't find myself invested in the characters, and maybe that's because, as I mentioned earlier, they seem so unconcerned with the death's of those around them.