Desolation Island is the fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and notable for a couple of reasons. First, it shows clear signs of O’Brian plotting on a larger scale than before: not only does he understand that he’s now embarked on a series, he leaves the action unfinished, in a way — on the last page Jack and Stephen are on a tiny speck of land in the South Atlantic. Something major has to happen before any of the plot points in motion (Stephen’s intelligence career, his love for Diana Villiers, Jack’s financial missteps, let alone any naval adventures) can move forward.
This is also the first book in which Jack takes his ship far south, into the “roaring forties,” which are inherently picturesque and dramatic. The fact that the “horrible old Leopard” is stalked around the (smallish southern end) of the globe by the massive Dutch Waakzaamheid only adds to the drama. These chase scenes are incredibly vivid.
Finally, we see Jack’s wife Sophie, for the first time, manipulating Jack. Captain Aubrey is hypercompetent on the waves but ashore, a natural victim of schemers. He is fleeced at cards, buys unsound horses, and falls victim to a speculator who claims to be able to mine silver on his land. To get him to go back to sea, Sophie shows an entirely new wifely cunning, pleading that Stephen needs to be taken to sea to ease his broken heart:
‘Once he had seen that you had changed your mind about the ship, he would never mention his own concerns. But if you had heard him speak of wombats — oh, just in passing, and not with any sense of ill-usage — it would have brought tears to your eyes. Oh, Jack, he is so very low.'”
And the next chapter begins, “The north-westerly gale had built up a wicked sea in the Bay of Biscay…” Sometimes I think the thing I love most about these books is their pacing.