Patrick O'Brian,
Desolation Island
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1978;
W.W. Norton, 1991)

Sailors who can face a broadside of enemy cannon without flinching might still suffer extreme terror when plague strikes their ship ... far from any land or assistance.

The plague that strikes the Leopard, Captain Jack Aubrey's latest command, in Desolation Island is virulent and deadly. It, and Dr. Stephen Maturin's heroic measures to slow its progress through the ship, is just one of the exciting episodes to punctuate the book.

It begins, on land, where Aubrey is proved once again to be as naive as he is cunning at sea. Frustrated time and again with cards, horses and silver ore, he is eager to leave the land (and family) behind him.

But the Leopard is a fourth-rate vessel at best, and her mission -- transporting criminals to Australia and relieving the infamous Governor Bligh -- is not to Aubrey's liking.

There is intrigue, particularly surrounding a mysterious American woman en route to Botany Bay for dealing in secrets, and Maturin's attempts to sound the depth of her treachery. There is dissent among officers, especially fomented by a bitter lieutenant who lost his chance at promotion. And there is the plague, which reduces Aubrey's crew to a fraction of his need.

The climax comes during a desperate chase in rough southern seas, with a determined Dutch pursuer that has Aubrey outgunned and outmanned. A tense running battle leaves the Leopard to drift, rudderless and taking water fast, into the unforgiving cold of the Antarctic.

O'Brian's expertise on his subject is unquestionable. Combined with remarkable characterization and high adventure, his books are an experience never to be missed.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 23 October 2004

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