Captain Jack Aubrey is ashore in Hampshire, living on half pay without a command -- until Stephen Maturin arrives. Maturin brings secret orders for Aubrey to take a frigate to the Cape of Good Hope under a commodore's pennant, there to mount an expedition against the French-held islands of Mauritius and La Reunion. But the difficulties of carrying out his orders are compounded by two of his own captains -- Lord Clonfert, a pleasure-seeking dilettante, and Captain Corbett, whose severity pushes his crew to the verge of mutiny . . .