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Desolation Island

The Book - Desolation Island

Patrick O'Brian is the writer behind the Aubrey-Maturin series that features a Napoleonic era British Sea Captain and a brilliant, if flawed, doctor who acompanies his many adventures. "Desolation Island" is one of the most brilliant of the series for many reasons, but perhaps most because of its depiction of Naval Warfare in the "high-latitudes" of the arctic region.

The book opens with "Lucky" Jack Aubrey taking command of the Leopard. He is sent on a mission to Australia to rescue the decidedly "unlucky" Admiral Bligh who has just suffered the third mutiny of his long and storied career.

Jack Aubrey, at sea, is in his element, a born leader and sailor, but on shore he barely knows how to conduct his own affairs. Even his wife wishes him a bon voyage if only so she can get the family's affairs in order. This characterization of a naval officer may seem stereo-typical. But perhaps there is reason to stereotype in this case. There were many officers who never functioned well outside the Royal Navy, including two of the greatest of the period, Cochran and Nelson himself. O'Brian endows Aubrey with considerable depth. He is a man devoted to his trade, but also interested in the world around him. This interest has led him to befriend Stephen Maturin.

Maturin is a different figure altogether, cultured, thoughtful and analytical. He plays the cello, while Aubrey strokes the violin in his stateroom. And it could be said that the instruments of each complement their characters. Aubrey is the high-strung, carrier of the melody, while Maturin fills in the atmosphere. He dispenses good advice and "physic" to the captain and crew of the Leopard, yet he seems unable to regulate his own life. He is a stoic who cannot over come the epicurean in himself. He has two downfalls, Diana Villiers and laudanum, both obsessions seem to keep him from happiness. Yet misery seems to suit him. He turns it to his advantage as he deals with adversity and his ulterior trade as a spy for the Admiralty.

On the trip to Australia, the Leopard is confronted with a Dutch ship and the Dutch are currently at war with Britain. This would be all well and good but the enemy has more and bigger guns, a well-trained numerous crew a wily captain and the Leopard is short-handed. It makes for a classic running fight with Aubrey being forced further and further south into the high latitudes, high winds, high seas and high adventure. The tension builds to an unbearable pitch as both man and the elements seem to work together to destroy the Leopard.

The scenes involving Desolation Island are accurate to a "T", from the abundant animal life to the smelly cabbages. O'Brian outdid himself in this installment of his naval adventure series. This book is highly recommended, as are all the Aubrey-Maturin books.

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