Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The now prosperous Captain Jack Aubrey is plucked by the Admiralty from his time on shore with his family, wife Sophie and three kids, to take command of the Leopard and sail halfway around the world to deliver prisoners to Botany Bay in Australia and to rescue the benighted Governor Bligh of Bounty fame. Accompanying him as usual will be his friend and surgeon Stephen Maturin who doubles as a master spy seeking to shorten the war against Napoleon.

Stephen is recovering (again) from his obsession with the two-faced Diane Villiers and from his addiction to laudanum. He discovers that among the convicts which they will be transporting is a beautiful woman spy who bears a resemblance to Villiers and who, in fact, was a friend of hers. He sets out to funnel false information through her to her spy handlers.

But meantime, Dr. Maturin has his hands full as the ship is wracked by a deadly disease. The disease starts among the convicts but quickly spreads to the crew. Every day brings more deaths, more solemn ceremonies of burial at sea. Will there be sufficient crew left to man the Leopard? Is the ship cursed? Is there a "Jonah" on board?

In the midst of fighting disease, the Leopard encounters a Dutch ship which looms menacingly for several days and finally engages Captain Aubrey and his ship in battle. In the battle, Aubrey is seriously wounded and the reader begins to wonder if the doctor will be able to work his wonders and pull the captain through once again. Or has "Lucky Jack's" luck finally run out? Well, this is number five in a series of twenty books, so I think you can probably figure out the answer to that question. 

Number five is even more weighed down (from my perspective) than usual with nautical terminology. I know many O'Brian fans live for this stuff - the descriptions of ships and their riggings and of their battles. It's really not why I read the books. I'm more interested in the characters and their relationships, particularly Maturin and Aubrey and also the wonderful Killick who takes care of the captain, both on sea and on shore. I enjoy the humor and the real understanding of how human relationships work that is so integral to these stories. Mostly I just enjoy the rousing good tales that Patrick O'Brian tells. He never disappoints.


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