Commissioned to rescue Governor Bligh of Bounty fame, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, sail the Leopard to Australia with a hold full of convicts. Among them is a beautiful and dangerous spy--and a treacherous disease that decimates the crew. With a Dutch man-of-war to windward, the undermanned, outgunned Leopard sails for her life into the freezing waters of the Antarctic, where, in mountainous seas, the Dutchman closes in.
This particular installment, which involves a voyage to Australia -- or at least in the direction of Australia, as they have various difficulties getting there -- seemed to me to feature a bit more slogging for a bit less reward than the last two, despite some character stuff for Stephen Maturin that did serve to regularly remind me just how fond of him I am. But once they reach the titular island, towards the end of the novel, things really came together in an interesting way, and I enjoyed the last fifty pages or so a great deal.
Rating: I'm going to give this one a 3.5/5 overall, but, hey, going very slowly and then finishing strong is better than going along well for a while and then finishing poorly.
One of my favorite P.O'B. books.
Further thoughts (on the fourth or fifth reading): This book is a classic 'out of the frying pan, into the fire' adventure. From the sharp practices of landsmen on rich sailors to a vicious blow in the Bay of Biscay, and on and on into more and more pressing perils. It should not be missed.
More than that, I might also say that it represents a crisis in Maturin's affairs: the point where it must be shown if hatred of Napoleon and love of the natural world are strong enough to maintain a man's interest in life when he has a broken heart.
A crucial installment in the series by any accounting. Also, of course, so well-written that a professor of mine in grad school used a section of it to illustrate effective sentence construction.
True, there is not as much in the way of naval battles as there was in some other volumes, but there is an edge-of-your-seat naval chase sequence that is likely to leave the reader breathless, there is a lot of quality time spend with familiar characters, there are some interesting new ones introduced and there are what I consider O’Brian’s most beautiful descriptions of the sea yet.
The sea is a very rewarding subject for the visual arts, presumably (speaking as someone, mind you, who has not the first clue about the visual arts) because it is on the very borderline between represenation and abstract – the sea is a concrete object which can be rendered naturalistically, but on the other hand it consist of nothing but waves, weather and light, thus forming an almost abstract space. One can (I think) see how that would appeal to a painter, but it is precisely because of those things that make it fascinating to a painter that describing the ocean is something very hard to do for a writer. O’Brian has been very impressive with this from Master & Commander onwards, but I think in Desolation Island he really outdoes himself – whether he describes a quiet day with a calm ocean or a storm in full blast, his tableaux are not just intense and vivid, but there is a certain transparent luminosity, strata of description stacked upon each other like Turner layers colours. The comparison is probably as trite as it is wrong, but on reading O’Brian’s rendering of the sea I could not but help but be reminded of some of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings, it is the same combination of bold, expressive strokes that yet somehow give the impression of fine, closely observed detail.
Many readers seem to have noticed a certain change in the series starting with this volume – mainly, it is ascribed to O’Brian becoming comfortable with the series format, rather than just a sequence of individual novels who just happen to share the same main characters. While I would not go so far as to say that this is wrong, I think that the shift is happening here is slightly different, and actually away from a serial structure. Patrick O’Brian never seemed much concerned about giving a sense of closure to his Aubrey-Maturin novels; with the exception of HMS Surprise all previous novels just stop at some more or less random point, only for the next installment to take up the thread after several months have passed. None of the earlier novels, however, gets quite as cut off in medias res as Desolation Island – while it’s not quite a cliffhanger, nothing at all appears to get resolved, there are countless threads left hanging, and the novel just… stops. Like we were not at the end of a novel, but rather at the end of a chapter, and I think that is exactly where we are – from Desolation Island onwards, this stops being a simple series and turns into one long novel, a (not counting the unfinished 21st volume) 20-volume spanning roman fleuve (or should that be roman mer?). I might be wrong, and this might only turn out to be something of a story arc inside the larger series, but I’ll find out – in any case, this is my favourite Aubrey-Maturin novel so far, and I’m quite excited to find out where else O’Brian will take his heroes.
“Each, as an individual, would pull the other out of the water; each would succor the other, even at considerable danger to himself. But each, as a representative of his tribe, will batter the other with great guns and small; sink, burn and destroy at the drop of a hat. A foolish, foolish situation, that must be dealt with by men of sense, not by gamecocks stalking about on stilts and high horses.” - Maturin, 261
The majority of the novel focuses on Maturin's study of the woman and an American stowaway. The possibility of war with America looms ever-present in this novel (pgs. 42, 113, 264) with talk of the British policy of impressment and the unhappy coincidence that Aubrey captains the HMS Leopard, which fired upon and boarded the USS Chesapeake in 1807. This action was emblematic of worsening tensions between Great Britain and the United States prior to the War of 1812. Simultaneously, Aubrey finds one of his officers doubting his ability to command and, when injured in an action against a Dutch ship, those complaints intensify (pg. 210). Damage from an iceberg in the Southern Ocean leads the mutineers to abandon the floundering ship, leaving Aubrey and some of his more loyal sailors behind. From there, the action shifts to Desolation Island. There, further encounters with Americans foreshadow the United States' eventual entry into the war.
O'Brian's writing is its usual pleasure, firmly grounding readers in the world of life at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. That said, this novel reads more like a prologue for the eventual introduction of the United States as a belligerent to the war. Still, O'Brian handles the intrigue well and there's some good action for those looking for it.
On eastward to Australia. But this
Suffice to say, I couldn't put it down.
BTW, I found Desolation Island (French DOM) at 48°44'19.26"S 69° 1'38.37"E.
Aubrey is more comfortable in his role as a father by now, though we only see a bit of that at the beginning. We get to see him really deal with some rough times on the ship, as well as hear his angry mutterings at having to have women aboard ^_^ And best of all, after a tense plot, it rounds off with Aubrey getting back into his lovable puns. The man cracks me up!
Maturin is just as moody as ever, except for when he's dissecting some creature or another. He's made the first step in Opium Anonymous, though: He recognizes that he has a problem. :)
Looking forward to the next book!
I'd been in another sneaky hate spiral, rage-quitting everything
But so queue Desolation Island, which is, as I've said already, one of my favorites in the Aubrey Maturin mega-series. This novel brings us one of Jack's most memorable ships (the horrible old Leopard), one of the crew's most interesting chases (fleeing the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid), one of the more interesting missions (to Australia, to help deal with the infamous Rum Rebellion against Governor William "Bounty" Bligh and introducing thereby the theme of mutiny, which delicately looms through the novel's various crises without ever really becoming overt), and one of Stephen's most interesting opponent/victims, Louisa Wogan, she of the slight resemblance to Stephen's faithless love interest, Diana, and of the "absurd gurgling laugh" and of the career as a sort of low-rent Aphra Behn.
It is around Wogan that most of the plot revolves; an American spy who got caught, she is sentenced to be transported to Australia, but the powers that be suspect she still has more valuable information to yield up, so instead of chucking her into an ordinary transportation hulk, she is to go on a Royal Navy ship -- the Leopard, under Jack Aubrey's command -- with enough additional prisoners to give her cover. En route, our man Dr. Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon and intelligence agent, is to be set to trick or otherwise extract this information from her. Sounds simple enough, and should be a piece of cake for our man Maturin, except for one giant fly in the ointment: gaol fever, aka typhus, brought on board by some of Wogan's camouflage-prisoners, quickly fatal to all of the people charged with the prisoners' care, including their doctor, and taking its toll on the Leopard's crew as well!
Nor is this their biggest problem as they make their ill-starred way to Australia. Undermanned and underprepared, they run afoul of the aforementioned Waakzaamheid, which I mention again just because it's fun to type "Waakzaamheid" and other hazards, leading them to the titular island and more peril! But it's all just a vehicle for Jack and Stephen to prove their ingenuity, their fitness to survive and command in their separate spheres, their ability to make do with whatever meager resources are at hand, their sheer awesomeness as characters and Men of the Early Nineteenth Century. Hooray!
Bligh's mutiny as backstory links interestingly with Aubrey's experience leading the Leopard: perhaps a majority of the crew abandon ship after efforts at fothering the hull fail, and the ship is in danger of foundering at sea.
Stephen's fondness for the stowaway, Michael Herapath, soon acting as Stephen's surgeon's mate (cannot be so appointed, being an American citizen, and is promoted to "supernumerary landsman" and then Midshipman by Jack). Stephen's addiction to laudanum and Michael's to opium.
Jack's splinter wound in the action with Waakzaamheid, severe harm to his head and leg, which Stephen mends.
The Leopard's history under another captain, firing on the USS Chesapeake under perhaps legal but certainly untoward circumstances, and how it plays into Aubrey's reception by sailors in the American whaler out of Nantucket. The history of a ship sails with it, nautical baggage to be sure.
Stephen's efforts at counterintelligence: "Stephen ... is attempting to poison French intelligence with false information. He pretended to find papers on the dead Mr. Martin implicating Martin as an intelligence agent, then enlisted Herapath in making copies. He knew full well that Herapath would tell Wogan, who would in turn give the information to her contacts." (Schuyler's Butcher's Bill)
Sultzer's Chronology puts events at late 1811, perhaps early 1812: "O'Brian has apparently shifted the dates of Bligh's term in Australia," as he was deposed by colonists in 1808, and events connected with Stephen's intelligence work place the action nearer the opening of the War of 1812.
The scenes relating to the epidemic aboard ship were enthralling, as was fleeing a Dutchman across a storm that created waves a mile high. Less interesting to me was the subplot between Maturin, the captive spy Mrs. Wogan, and her paramour Haropath. There was something distasteful about the way Maturin regarded and manipulated Mrs. Wogan and Haropath, particularly in that I felt I was supposed to compare his manipulations to hers and exalt in his triumph. I didn't find him any more moral than Mrs. Wogan (I believe I was supposed to, but I'm never sure about authorial intent) and so the disdainful tone the narrator (Tull) took in regards to Mrs. Wogan really caught in my craw. As much as I hate it when Maturin is hurt, it would do him (and my affection for him) good if he were less beloved by the characters and less successful in every endeavor (except lurve, of course--can't forget that those awful hussies won't have sex with him, which just shows how awful they are, I guess). Everyone else seems to really enjoy this novel, so maybe I was just in a bad mood or something. But truthfully, I disliked Haropath, hated that I was supposed to feel sorry for him, and am very glad to see the back of him, his Nice Guy role, and the way Maturin acted around his captives.
The chase scene and Maturin's operating toward the end are some of the best work O'Brian has done so far.
Just like the previous book it opens with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in England with Jack struggling with life on shore. He may be in command on a ship but on land he is like a fish out of water open to more unscrupulous people. He
Along with the common convicts there is also an American,Lousia Wogan, who was caught spying and also transported rather than executed because she has influential friends in London and Britain is not at war with America. Stephen joins Jack on the trip in the hope he can get some information out of her. In truth although Jack is the captain of the ship this book revolves more around Stephen and there is little military action within. As well as his spy work Stephen must deal with an outbreak of gaol fever that the convicts introduce to the ship with devastating consequences. Most is pure journey with no real destination as the Leopard never does make Australia in this novel.
What military action there is happens when the Leopard, seriously undermanned is chased by a far more powerful Dutch warship, the Waakzaamheid, until the latter sinks in extremely heavy southern seas. This is a great piece of writing as the author wonderfully portrays Jack’s thought processes as he battles the danger to the ship from weather and enemy simultaneously. In the chase the Leopard's rudder is damaged and Jack must get her to an anchorage somehow so that the damage can be rectified.
Once again several more minor characters are very central. There is Mrs Wogan, her American lover and stowaway Michael Herapath, the troublesome and querulous Lieutenant Grant, and a landsman Andrew Wray whom Jack accuses of cheating at cards and challenges him. Although Jack sails before there is any duel no doubt make an appearance later on in the series
The book ends with the escape of Wogan and Herapath on an American whaler but in reality it is not an ending in the conventional sense.
Once again whilst I enjoyed the book on the whole and there is some great writing within however, it really failed to really grip me.
Desolation Island had a lot more action, bigger battles, and was less interested in the shipwreck portion of the plot than The Unknown Shore. It was better book overall, and I will continue to read O'Brian, but I do hope that he soon breaks away from what is already becoming quite a noticeable formula.
It's still an excellently-written naval adventure and I'm looking forward to The Fortune of War.