Desolation Island (Aubrey/Maturin)

by Patrick O'Brian

Paperback, 1991



Call number




W. W. Norton & Company (1991), Edition: 1st, 325 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member myfanwy
I've said it before and I'll say it again, O'Brien has a remarkable talent for characterization, for capturing the personalities of an entire crew, for pacing that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and for realism that does not glorify what is the brutality of war. Once again, this book follows
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Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin on a voyage halfway around the world. Unlike other books there is no one climax. You think it might be the battle with the Dutch ship, but then there's an iceberg or the doldrums or starvation or mutiny. Through it all you gain an appreciation for Aubrey's natural intuition and Maturin's calculating intelligence. And yet they remain men, complete with desires and ambitions and foolishness. I'm already through book five and it is only force of will that keeps me from racing ahead with the other 15+ books. You don't need to have any interest in Napoleonic warfare to like these books. You just have to enjoy good writing!
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LibraryThing member bragan
I'm finally getting back to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of Age of Sail novels after a bit of a hiatus. It's always a little hard for me to know exactly how to feel about these books. The deliberately old-fashioned style, complete with lots of historical slang, and the profusion of
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complicated naval terms make them much less fun and zippy reads than they seem like they really ought to be. Despite having read (or at least skimmed) an entire book-length guide to said terminology, I still can't follow any of the action when they're fighting storms or other ships at sea, which can get a little frustrating. But I do love the characters, and their wonderful odd-couple friendship, and the scattered moments of sly humor. I like those a lot.

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.
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LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
Though a second reading is less uncomfortable than the first (the edge of the seat is so sharp, and bad for circulation!) this is still an exciting, dare I say epic installment of the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin. With few sentences, O'Brian lets us infer a tragic story and a driving hatred
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that create the climactic chase of the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member Larou
Desolation Island (the fifth in the series) seems in many ways like the archetypical Aubrey-Maturin novel, and maybe that is why apparently the bulk of the movie Master and Commander (which I have never watched, so I’m going by hearsay here) was based on it. It has everything admirers of the
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series (and honestly – who, once they have navigated past the rocky cliffs of the first volume, would not admire this series?) love about it, and all of it even more perfectly balanced out against each other than it was in HMS Surprise.

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.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Perhaps the best book in the series yet, or at least the first where I could keep my mind from wandering and focused on the story from beginning to end. This story sees Capt. Aubrey skippering the Leopard to (grudgingly) transfer convicts to Botany Bay and assist Capt. Bligh and other victims of
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the mutiny when they get there. Dr. Stephen Maturin actually has an interest in one of the prisoners – an American spy – and what he can pry out of her along the voyage. The Leopard is beset first by gaol fever and then by a larger, better armed Dutch ship that relentlessly tails them through the South Atlantic. The two ships come to battle at last during a storm, the only saving grace for the Leopard is that the Dutch ship is sunk by the tempest. Leaking badly, half of the remaining crew jump ship, and the Leopard finally is able to land for repairs on Desolation Island. Their rescue comes from an American whaler, the crew of which have bitter memories of the Leopard’s attack on an American ship under another captain. Maturin is able to bargain a trade of his medical care for scurvy among the crew for use of the whaler’s forges to build a new rudder. Maturin also manages to get the American spy and her lover to escape aboard the whaler, I’m not certain why, but that’s where the book ends.

“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
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
Desolation Island, Patrick O'Brian's fifth book in his Aubrey-Maturin series, once again see Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin take to the seas on one of His Majesty's ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike previous novels, Aubrey's mission in this story is not explicitly for war, but
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rather to ferry prisoners to Botany Bay and there discover the fate of Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty infamy) who was deposed as Governor of New South Wales following the Rum Rebellion. The early mention of Bligh and occasional references to him serve as a form of foreshadowing. The British government suspects one of the prisoners, a companion of Maturin's would-be lover Diana Villiers, of being a spy for the United States. Maturin must work to discover what information she has and how she both gathers and passes it along.
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.
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LibraryThing member GirlFromIpanema
My favourite of the series so far. It brings the crew of HMS Leopard to the Antarctic waters, en route to Australia as a transport, first being pursued by a much larger dutch privateer. The end of this hunt is one of the most chilling passages I have ever read!
On eastward to Australia. But this
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time Lucky Jack seems to have run out of luck. Finding an island that hasn't been properly charted yet will be the only way to save his ship and remaining men.
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.
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LibraryThing member wispywillow
I don't know what--if anything--this book had that appealed to me that the others didn't quite have, but where I enjoyed the other books, I loved this one! And perhaps it has nothing to do with the book at all, but merely my own familiarization with the characters, period speech, and naval
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terminology. I also seemed to detect more inner monologue in this one than the others; the thoughts of Maturin and Aubrey are very interesting, especially when they begin to doubt themselves or are annoyed because a guest has been keeping them at the dinner table for much too long.

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!
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
Bleaker than some of the earlier books, partly because of the setting, Desolation Island pits crew against nature and Mataurin against his heart.
LibraryThing member bearpacker
Desolation Island? Desolation voyage is more like it, the island being the best thing that happens to Aubrey & co. on this voyage. In this episode O'Brian presents a great collection of what can possibly go really really wrong on a long voyage in a tall ship during war. A good counterbalance to
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some of his "lucky Jack" episodes! Found myself looking at the southern boundaries of an ocean map to see if I could find the island in question, or the one missed (Crozet was it?). O'Brian is great for bringing that time period to life, and conveying the type of challenges people undertook, both in sailing and understanding their world, that helped shape the world as we know it today.
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LibraryThing member rameau
My new favorite in the series. It also has in the duel between the Leopard and the Waakzaamheid one of the greatest action scenes ever written.
LibraryThing member KateSherrod
So I have final and ultimate proof that Patrick O'Brian is good for what ails you, especially when you're reading the Aubrey/Maturin novels in sequence and just happen to come up on one of your favorites just when you need it the most.

I'd been in another sneaky hate spiral, rage-quitting everything
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I picked up at the slightest provocation, even books to which I'd been looking forward. I was pretty sure this had nothing to do with their quality, or at least not very much, and everything to do with me. After all, I had just had to put my faithful companion of over 11 years, the Collie of Follie, to sleep and there is still a giant border collie-shaped hole in my home and my life and when I'm home and reading I've always had one hand on her fur.

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!
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LibraryThing member charlie68
Promised alot, was good in places but the ending was kinda flat.
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
The force of Jack's personality is at the forefront of this episode. The ending scenes where he copes with ship wreck, great storms, and personal injury are particularly moving. There is quite a bit of spycraft in this novel, which brings Stephen to the forefront. Also, the contrast between Jack on
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shore and Jack in a ship is profound. Great reading here.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Is anyone READING it ?: Sorry but after reading this book and then seeing the reviews I have to ask if anyone is really READING it or just studying the words? Apart from Obrien's constant use of the old naval terminology which hardly anyone can understand (there were many whole paragraphs and
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chapters which made no sense whatsoever to the non-sailor) there was very little story at all? One review mentions Aubreys task is to rescue Captain Bligh in Australia. Apart from the mention of it at the start, it ends without them anywhere even close to Australia in a conclusion so abrupt I thought I'd lost half the book somewhere !!! Much as I enjoy these type of novels and will continue to consume them regardless of their quality(within reason),I have to say that reviews that class Obrien as one of the greatest historical fiction writer are pure fiction in themselves. How on earth these books can possibly be compared to Bernard Cornwell or C.S Forester is beyond my understanding(well I could be cynical and suspect that the critics have a conflict of interest somewhere) . I am begining to feel that the 20 odd books in the series could probably be condensed down into no more than 5 once the ramblings of old naval parlance and duplicated situations were dispensed with. I'm starting to feel I could even write one myself as long as I learned how to 'come up the fore and main topsail sheets half a fathom or ease my quoin for greater elevation' or maybe even learn what 'Royal and weather studding-sails' does? I really do hope that the quality improves over the next 15 I shall read. Yes I'll still read em but mainly due to lack of anything else new to me.
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LibraryThing member mohi
Another fun entry in the Aubrey-Maturin adventures. Once again Aubrey finds himself escaping his land-locked problems to the sea. A bout of gaol fever, a tenacious enemy bent on hunting him down, and a beautiful American spy complicate matters.
LibraryThing member elenchus
In which Aubrey is awarded the Leopard and ordered to assist Captain Bligh and his second experience with mutiny, this time in New South Wales. Unknown to Aubrey, Maturin undertakes a mission which puts him aboard, and conveniently provides him a reprieve from distasteful politics in the Admiralty.
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Their common concern is a passel of convicts punished with "transportation" to Botany Bay, among them an American spy. The Leopard endures the Doldrums in unexpectedly northern latitudes, resulting in an outbreak of gaol fever which decimates the crew, and leaves Tom Pullings to convalesce in Recife. Their resumed voyage through the South Atlantic becomes a game of cat and mouse with a Dutch man-of-war.


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.
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LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
After some time on land, Captain Aubrey finally gets a ship again--an old ship with a terrible reputation, it's true, but at least it's a ship. With him sail his old friend, Dr. Maturin, and a berth full of convicts. But they rapidly run into problems--gaol fever, then a storm that nearly destroys
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them, and finally being trapped on an island until they can somehow repair their ship.

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.
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LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
I really enjoyed this one, even with the feeling that I rushed through it a bit and didn't get everything I could have from it. After reading it I checked out several reviews of it that said it was the start of the series really getting brilliant. That's scary. What were the first four books
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The chase scene and Maturin's operating toward the end are some of the best work O'Brian has done so far.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“You do not mean there is danger of peace?", cried Jack.”

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
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is given command on the ageing HMS Leopard and the task of transporting some convicts to New South Wales to pick the infamous Captain Bligh.

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.
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LibraryThing member Algybama
Better than The Unknown Shore (the other O'Brian novel that I've read), though both closely follow what I suspect is the author's formula: a chapter or two or preparation, followed by a chapter of sea-going fun, then a bout of scurvy and low spirits that goes on until there's a battle, followed by
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a shipwreck, the climax, and then the journey back to Britain. This almost perfectly summarizes the plot of both O'Brian novels that I've read.

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.
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LibraryThing member kren250
The fifth book in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and my favorite so far. I love the understated humor in these books, and all the detail the author adds. It really gives you a feel for the story, and the time it's set in.
LibraryThing member TadAD
This wasn't my favorite of the Aubrey/Maturin stories. O'Brian managed to put a great deal of excitement and tension into the Leopard's flight from the Waakzaamheid and the race to find shelter in the sinking ship. However, Maturin's counter-espionage games with Louisa Wogan and Michael Herapath
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didn't interest me as much.

It's still an excellently-written naval adventure and I'm looking forward to The Fortune of War.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

325 p.; 8.3 inches


039330812X / 9780393308129
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