The book contains lightly fictionalized accounts of the battles between HMS Java and USS Constitution, and between HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake. The Americans capture Aubrey and become suspicious, because he is a former commander of HMS Leopard, which fired in the USS Chesapeake in 1810.
This book extensively explores Stephen Maturin's character while he and Aubrey languish in captivity in Boston, as he manifests his various roles, doctor, spy, and tormented lover. It contains the account of Maturin's pursuit of Diana Villiers, with whom he remains deeply in love.
After almost losing the Leopard to the ocean, Aubrey and his much reduced crew limp into harbour in the Dutch East Indies. He reports to the Admiral on station, Admiral Drury, who he has known for twenty years. Aubrey relinquishes the much diminished Leopard, now only suitable as a transport ship, and prepares to return to Portsmouth. He argues vigorously with the Admiral for the privilege of taking the prime officers and men with him - a naval custom that the Admiral himself has followed - and eventually prevails. Meanwhile Maturin meets up with fellow agent of the crown, Mr. Wallis, who apprises Stephen of the news from Britain and the successful progress of the intrigues involving Louisa Wogan. Before leaving, Leopard's crew take on the crew of HMS Cumberland at a game of cricket in which Dr. Maturin unwittingly (and hilariously) reverts to the similar Irish sport of hurling.
They ship in HMS La Fleche for the voyage back, commanded by Captain Yorke. Travelling with an extensive library in his cabin, Yorke is clearly a well-read man and Maturin warms to him immediately. News reaches La Fleche of war between Britain and America. Aubrey spends his time during the voyage teaching the young midshipmen while Maturin is engrossed in dissections of collection of specimens from Desolation Island and New Holland with McLean, the ship's Scottish surgeon and a brilliant anatomical naturalist. One night a fire breaks out on board and the crew and its Leopard passengers have to abandon ship in the South Atlantic. A few weeks later they are picked up by HMS Java, already laden with passengers headed for Bombay and commanded by Captain Henry Lambert.
They rendezvous with Lambert's prize, the William off the coast of Brazil, and soon the watch aloft hails a ship hull up on the horizon, the USS Constitution, which they immediately pursue. Jack and his Leopards man two guns but the ensuing fight goes badly when the Java's foremast gives way. The American commander makes few mistakes and eventually the Java is forced to strike its colours. Constitution has to return to Boston to refit and during the voyage Maturin strikes up conversation with a French passenger, Pontet-Canet, and Mr. Evans, the amiable ship's surgeon. Hopes are high for the wounded Captain Lambert's survival but he dies of his wounds and grief after arriving ashore. Aubrey, who was shot in one arm, manages against expectations to survive.
Once in Boston, Aubrey convalesces from his wounds in Dr. Choate's hospital for lunatics, waiting for the next prisoner exchange. He is caught unawares when, amidst this type of unhinged patient, a Jahleel Brenton of the Navy Department starts to quiz him about the behaviour of the Leopard and its dealings with the US merchantman, the Alice B. Sawyer. Maturin meanwhile is reacquainted with both Louisa Wogan and Michael Herapath and the latter's father - a wealthy merchant and former Loyalist - who still feels sympathy towards the British. Maturin meets Diana Villiers once again, now the mistress of an American spymaster, Howard Johnson. Johnson visits Aubrey who, unawares, makes free with his comments about Maturin, only to realise his folly later in a bedside conversation with Stephen.
Aubrey is frustrated by his enforced inactivity whilst Maturin meets trouble at the hands of the French in the persons of Pontet-Canet and Dubreuil. During a second attempt at abduction, Maturin escapes to Diana Villiers' rooms in the Franchon hotel and kills both Frenchmen when they come searching for him. Stephen also discovers that Johnson had secretly opened a letter from Diana stating her love and regard for him. Now at risk from both the French and Johnson, their need to escape becomes paramount. Enlisting the help of the older Mr. Herapath and a small ugly slab-sided fishing boat from one of his trading vessels, Aubrey, Maturin and Diana escape to sea. They rendezvous with the thirty-eight gun frigate, HMS Shannon, entering the outer harbour on blockade duty and are taken on board. As his water supplies aboard the Shannon are coming to an end, Captain Philip Broke - a cousin and childhood friend of Jack's - writes to Captain Lawrence, the commander of the thirty-eight gun USS Chesapeake lying in harbour, challenging him to come out and fight. The Chesapeake, already in the process of weighing anchor, comes out in apparent pursuit of Aubrey and engages the Shannon. The Shannon's crew has had long years of practice at her great guns, aptly demonstrated to Jack Aubrey in practice, and the resultant clash brings about the Royal Navy's first victory in the war (having already lost three frigates).
- Jack Aubrey - Former Captain of HMS Leopard.
- Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
- Sophie Aubrey - Jack's wife
- Diana Villiers - a love interest of Stephen's and cousin of Sophie's.
- Barret Bonden - the captain's coxswain.
- Preserved Killick - Aubrey's ever loyal servant.
- Babbington - 1st lieutenant in the Leopard
- Captain Moore - commands the Marines in the Leopard
- Admiral Drury - admiral on station at Pulo Batang in the Dutch East Indies.
- Captain Yorke - captain of HMS La Fléche.
- Warner - 1st lieutenant in La Fléche.
- McLean - ship's surgeon in La Fléche.
- Captain Henry Lambert - captain of HMS Java.
- Chads - 1st lieutenant in Java.
- General Hislop - Governor-designate of Bombay.
- Captain Philip Broke - captain of the Shannon.
- Watt - 1st lieutenant in the Shannon.
- Michael Herapath - an American stowaway who runs from the Leopard with Mrs. Wogan.
- Louisa Wogan - an attractive young woman who has spied on the British.
- Howard Johnson - a Republican and counsellor to the U.S. Secretary of State.
- Evans - surgeon in the Constitution.
- Commodore Bainbridge - commander of Constitution.
- Jahleel Brenton - of the American Navy Department.
- Captain Lawrence - captain of the Chesapeake.
- Pontet-Canet - Frenchman travelling to America.
- Dubreuil - French spy in Boston.
- HMS Leopard - a 50-gun fourth rate (converted to troop transport)
- HMS La Fléche - a 20-gun sixth rate
- HMS Cumberland - a 74-gun third rate
- HMS Java - a 38-gun frigate
- HMS Shannon - a 38-gun frigate
- HMS Aeolus - a 32-gun frigate
- HMS Belvidera - a 36-gun frigate
- USS Constitution - a 44-gun frigate
- USS Chesapeake - a 38-gun frigate
- USS President - a 44-gun frigate
- USS Congress - a 38-gun frigate
Allusions/references to actual history, geography, and current scienceEdit
The two frigate actions, HMS Java against the USS Constitution, and HMS Shannon against the USS Chesapeake, that form the basis of the narrative are real events although transformed for storytelling effect by O'Brian. The latter battle is discussed in the Memoir of Admiral Sir P. B. V. Broke, Bart., KCB, etc (London, 1866)
- 1979, UK, Collins (ISBN 0-00-222498-4), pub date ? ? 1979, hardback (First edition)
- 1980, UK, Fontana (ISBN 0006159931), pub date 29 May 1980, paperback
- 1980, UK, Collins (ISBN 002224984), pub date ? ? 1989, hardback
- W. W. Norton & Company; Paperback reprint edition (1991) (ISBN 0393308138)
- William A. Thomas Braille Bookstore; Hardcover edition (1992)
- Books on Tape; Audio edition (1992) (ISBN 5555358717) (ISBN 1569564183)
- W. W. Norton & Company; Hardcover edition (1994) (ISBN 0393037061)
- Thorndike Press; Hardcover Large-print edition (2001) (ISBN 0754015882)
- Thorndike Press; Paperback Large-print edition (2001) (ISBN 0754024490)
- Recorded Books, LLC; Unabridged Audio edition narrated by Patrick Tull (ISBN 1402591772)