As the title fairly gives away, Jack Aubrey finally earns his broad blue flag by the end of the book. In fact, it's the very last page of the book - and after 20 books of daring expeditions, bold cuttings-out, sailing all around the wide world and every sea upon her - Captain Aubrey was finally made an Admiral. His particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin was there to decode the orders from the Admiralty, where they were in Valparaiso, after assisting the nation of Chile gain its independence from Spain. Their friendship is one of the finest literary examples of a real, breathing, three dimensional relationship; they know each other extremely well, are particularly tolerant, if not affectionate of, each other's foibles, well aware and proud of each other's virtues, and as fine an example of how a real friendship changes and grows over a life time. O'Brian does a stellar job of allowing the vagaries of life to profoundly change each man, and yet both retain an essential core that is constant.
After reading 20 books, I feel like Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin are my friends too - indeed, I wish they were. I would gladly invite them to dinner for some soused hog's face (Capt. Aubrey's particular favorite) and a creditable pudding. Naturally claret, madeira, and brandy would be available in the quantities that a gentleman expects.
Well, anyway - I say without blushing that I misted over with manly tears when at last Stephen was able to tell Jack that he'd gotten his flag - I was nearly as affected as the character himself was. It's oddly sad and yet very appropriate that Patrick O'Brian died before completing any other stories of Aubrey and Maturin - we followed Captain Aubrey's career from his first independent command (Sophie, 14 guns) to his last, his beloved Surprise, 36 guns.
Now that I've finished the whole series, I quite feel like going right back and starting all over again. My copies of the early books are languishing in storage in Philadelphia, though, so that shall have to wait. I feel strangely sad that I have no more new stories to look forward to.
But at least Admiral Aubrey finally got to hoist his broad, blue penant at the mizzen.
*Mr. O'Brian died at age 85 in Jan, 2000 while writing "21" - the partially completed next installment. What he did complete has been published, too.