O'Brian enjoys a sparkling success while playing with distinctly modern themes -- in this 17th installment of the lives of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, best friends and seafaring warriors of the Napoleonic Wars. Following on the botched South American adventures of The Wine-Dark Sea (1993), Aubrey and Maturin find themselves battling the perils of domesticity in an England recognizable from the pages of Jane Austen's Persuasion. In episodes of Aubrey at home with his wife and children and a mother-in-law-turned-bookie, the author expands Austen's portrait of landlocked, rather female concerns -- relations among in-laws, etiquette and ambition among the gentry -- to show how slavery, the spoils of war, and financial trickery formed the underpinnings of that romanticized and "genteel" society. Maturin's problems are more dramatic: His previously unseen daughter Brigid is autistic, his wife Diana has fled in despair, his addiction to coca leaves has replaced his former appetite for liquid opium. Worse, a homosexual lord is being blackmailed by French agents to denounce Maturin for harboring two transported persons, the penalty for which, given Maturin's French-Irish background, could be the gallows. These themes mix powerfully when Aubrey is ordered to take a squadron and suppress the slave trade on Africa's West Coast, with secret orders to double back and intercept a French invasion of Ireland. One of Aubrey's captains is homosexual, a capable man flawed by his inability to keep his hands off his more comely crewmen. Meanwhile, Maturin's enlightened 18th-century speculations on love, sex, and politics endow the action with rich, often comic, ironies, expressed as always in O'Brian's hyperbolic, nearly Joycean flights of rhetoric. A mesmerizing performance on many levels -- as history, as story, as literature -- this novel transcends two genres in one stroke, the domestic romance and the seafaring hero's tale. In doing so, O'Brian bids to be considered the rightful heir not just of C.S. Forester, but of Jane Austen herself.