Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian
Published by Norton
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian is the fifth volume in this long-running series of nautical fiction set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. When Jack Aubrey is commissioned to take the Leopard to Australia and rescue Captain Bligh, things seem simple enough. However, he is also constrained to carry a number of prisoners who are to be deported there, including several women. Worse yet, one of these has been convicted of spying on behalf of the French, and she has been a friend of Stephen Maturin's lost love, Diana Villiers.
Things turn from bad to worse when a mysterious infectious disease begins cutting broad swaths through the ship's crew, in spite of all Dr. Maturin can do to stop it. Suddenly the ship is desparately short-handed, just when it is set upon by a Dutch warship. It is all Captain Aubrey can do to salvage the situation, and even so they run against an iceberg and the ship takes some severe damage.
The panicking crew wants to abandon ship, and things are so desperate for a time that Jack decides to give permission for those who believe they have a better chance in the boats to depart. Enough loyal crewmembers share his faith in his ability to keep the ship together that they are able to safely steer it to a lonely island in Antarctic waters. There Dr. Maturin finds a scientific paradise, full of fascinating animals and birds to study. However, Captain Aubrey is more concerned with getting his ship back in working order, the sooner the better.
When an American whaler puts in at Desolation Island, Jack sees the opportunity to gain access to a forge that can produce the metal parts he needs to restore the ship's damaged hull to reasonably seaworthy condition. However, relations between the United States and Britain are dangerously tense, and he dares not simply commandeer the services of the American blacksmith, lest he provoke war between the two countries. Somehow he must find a way to persuade the American captain to assist him, in spite of the horrible record of the ship he commands.
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Review posted January 17, 2000
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