Commissioned to rescue Governor Bligh of Bounty fame, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and surgeon Stephen Maturin sail the Leopard to Australia with a hold full of convicts. Among them is a beautiful and dangerous spy - and a dangerous disease which decimates the crew.
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Desolation Island (1978), the fifth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, begins like the fourth one, depicting the home life of Captain Jack Aubrey, but now his situation appears to be improved, due to his successful completion of the Mauritius mission (complete with juicy prize ships) in the fifth novel, so that he's paid off the debts of his mother-in-law-from-hell and has enough money to add extensions to his house and even to lend 780 pounds to his bosom buddy Stephen Maturin. Jack's twin daughters are looking like little girls instead of like wizened aliens, and his infant son is healthy. Wife Sophie is worried, however, because Jack ashore tends to be too trusting, with the result that he's being cheated out of money by card sharps and a dubious silver refining venture. As a sailor aptly puts it later in the novel, "When we're ashore, sometimes we're a little at sea." Luckily for Jack, he's got a new commission: he's to captain the Leopard, a renovated fourth class war ship, some 15,000 miles to Botany Bay, Australia, there to deal with a delicate situation involving Captain Bligh, who has suffered from a second mutiny after the famous Bounty incident.
Stephen is in bad condition because Diana Villiers has yet again jilted him by going to America with another man and because his laudanum regimen has begun to debilitate him, but Jack's mission might get him out of his funk. Because an American friend of Diana's, Mrs. Louisa Wogan, has just been arrested for spying on England and will be transported to Botany Bay aboard the Leopard, Stephen will join the voyage in both his official role as ship's surgeon and his covert role as intelligence agent, and the prospect of encountering interesting flora and fauna in the southern hemisphere appeals to him. And of course Jack and Stephen enjoy each other's company aboard ship, whether making good music with their violin and cello or good conversation when duty permits.
Over their voyage of thousands of miles, Jack and Stephen have to deal with challenging matters relating to their respective duties, Jack captaining a ship full of 340 men, a score of transportation prisoners (including, much to Jack's discomfort, a few women), and an untrustworthy officer, all the while being on the look out for enemy ships (England still being at war with Bonaparte's France and the Dutch) and, after a certain point, "ice islands," while Stephen has to keep the people on the ship in good health while withdrawing from laudanum and plumbing Mrs. Wogan and befriending her lover to see how deep her espionage runs. Though the book has fewer exciting violent action scenes than earlier novels in the series, there are two wonderfully suspenseful, extended passages that offer unique challenges to Jack and his men (O'Brien is skilled at finding ever new types of opponents, battles, and disasters for his characters without repeating pattern or outcome).
This novel has at least as much psychological exploration and action as the others in the series so far, about drug addiction ("habituation"), superstition, love, leadership, and espionage in situations of close proximity to other men (as on a ship for over a year) or intense activity (as in battles or wrecks). Stephen's diary is full of insights on himself and the people around him. He worries that his manipulation of people for his intelligence work could corrupt his character. And he is able to tell Mrs. Wogan (from first-hand experience) that love involves "the abdication of the critical sense."
O'Brien varies his narration by adding the ship's log, Jack's letters to Sophie, and Stephen's diary entries to his basic third person narration limited to Jack or Stephen's points of view. There is little here from the female point of view, apart from one letter by Mrs. Wogan to Diana (that we take the liberty of reading when Stephen does), and although the American woman's laughter is large and her lover says of her that "the word possession is so very foolish when it is applied to a woman as entire as Louisa," the novel is, like the others so far, male-centered.
In addition to developing the ever-worsening relations between the USA and the UK, implying that war will break out in future books in the series, Desolation Island offers plenty of fascinating depictions of flora and especially fauna, as of myriad penguins flying under the water as they chase fish chasing shrimp while they themselves are being chased by seals being chased by killer whales, or as of, 12' wing-span albatrosses gracefully at home in ocean gales, and a sublime 100' blue whale. And of course the novel features O'Brien's wonderfully precise, beautiful and bracing prose of "the splendid, empty sea":
"The long, even, fairly heavy swell lifted him and set him down at a measured pace, so that sometimes his horizon was no more than three miles away, and sometimes he saw an enormous disc of ocean, a cold uneasy sea, endless miles of desolation, a comfortless element, in which he was at home."
Reader Ric Jerrom continues to be O'Brien, Jack, and Stephen for me; I'll continue listening to any books in the series read by him. And I'll continue enjoying and recommending the series (starting with the first novel about Jack and Stephen, Master and Commander) to readers who like psychological historical nautical fiction. Each book so far has been of a different shape and texture and mood and pattern, all so far being unified by the complex and appealing characters of Jack and Stephen and by their rich friendship.