Friday, September 27, 2013

Justin Robinson's CITY OF DEVILS

First of all, look at the cover. Just look at it! Isn't it the most pulptastic thing you've seen since those covers Kelley Jones did for Steve Niles' Edge of Doom a few years back? Serioiusly, if that cover doesn't make  you want to drop everything and go get you a copy of City of Devils, I... I question your capacity for joy in this life!

OK, I'm going to calm down in a moment here, I promise. But, you know, this is the new novel from Justin "Mr. Blank" Robinson, so a little gushy excitement on my part is entirely in order.

This time around, Robinson has taken a page from Angry Robot's team playbook and come out with a classic bit of genre mashing. There have been plenty of crime/noir-meets-fantasy/horror novels in the last few years, but did we really need yet another one, however good?

Well, yes, yes we did. Because this isn't just horror noir, this is movie monster horror noir, you guys. Campy movie monster horror noir, even.. As in the world in which this novel is set is one in which, sometime not long after World War II came another gigantic and world-changing war as the result of a violent unknown event* that transformed a sizable portion of humanity into real-world movie monsters of every kind, from mummies in cheesy faux Egyptian regalia to wolfmen to werewolves (there's a difference, you know) to Frankenstein's monster (which I guess now should be plural) to witches to gremlins to doppelgangers to... you get the idea. And not only are movie monsters now real, but each and every one of them has the power to make more monsters -- by "turning" ordinary humans into whatever monster the turning monster is. Which all of the monsters are very keen to do. Really really keen.

This results in a Los Angeles, ca I'm guessing the late 1950s or early 1960s, in which plain old human beings are a persecuted minority, hunted and despised, and in which there is exactly one human private eye left in the city: our man Nick Moss. Who just got hired by a famous movie star/doppelganger to find her missing husband, a prominent and powerful mummy.

Of course Mr. Moss uncovers a much deeper and more intricate plot than just a missing husband, as we quickly learn when his fellow (hee) humanitarians start getting bumped off one by one.

The resulting book is dense, deeply silly and a whole lot of fun. As a follow-up to Mr. Blank it comes off as something of a lesser work but pretty much anything would probably seem that way, though, nota bene for those who got annoyed by some of the gender/body image politics that crept into Mr. Blank (as I did, slightly), who will be happy to learn that there is none of that to be had in City of Devils.

And in its place is loads of crazy, inventive over-the-top fun as Mr. Moss escapes from werewolves, phantoms (as in "of the opera"), wolfmen (remember, there is a difference), a lovesick pumpkinhead who dreams of connubial bliss after he's turned Moss into another pumpkinhead, ogres, giant crawling eyeballs, gremlins, cops and movie studio executives. Some of whom fill more than one role.

Ridiculous good fun, this!

*Wink, as always, at the Peter Greenaway fans out there.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sigrid Undset's THE WILD ORCHID

Wow, does it seem criminal that this book, and its sequel, The Burning Bush, seem to be out of print, at least in English. I know Sigrid Undset is best known for her great sprawling historical fiction (Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken, etc) but she didn't just get a Nobel for being the Dorothy Dunnett of Scandanavia, you guys.*

The Wild Orchid is little read now, I suspect, because its theme is very much out of fashion. It is, at bottom, the first half of a novel of conversion, specifically conversion to Catholicism, which was just re-establishing itself as a valid, legal religion in Undset's native Norway during her lifetime. As such, it's perhaps more than a little autobiographical, this book, in spirit if not in fact. Undset herself converted to Catholicsm as an adult, after years and years of dwelling emotionally and mentally in the pre-Lutheran Norway of her most famous novels.

About a third of the way through the book, she presents what I think must have been her own feelings about her decision in a nutshell, as her protagonist witnesses a historic event, somewhat bemused:
"If one could only reach out with one's soul and come in contact with an invisible one -- who would help one to a deeper or higher vision of all that was irritating and disturbing, to look past the stupidity and platitudes and ridiculous expressions, into what was valuable in those one associated with, a common charity, a common vow which bound one to them."
Hell, it's enough to make me miss organized religion myself!

But a religious journey isn't the only thing that's going on here; The Wild Orchid, first volume of a two part novel published as The Winding Road (the second book, The Burning Bush, is one I'm planning to read very soon, if not indeed right away. We all know what a fickle reader I've become) is also a portrait of its age, the turn of the last century (ca. 1905 as the novel opens), that is, perhaps startlingly, not all that unfamiliar to a 21st century reader.

Paul Seller is the child of divorced parents. His father remarried a blowsily bourgeois woman for whom Paul has no respect, preferring his own mother, Julie, who is a distractingly awesome character that surely any son would prefer to a fussy, conventionally motherly showoff like Paul's stepmother. Julie, finding herself divorced with four children to raise, cheerfully struck off for the country, found a nice plot of land, built herself a house and furnished it very simply, and set about planting and raising crops and carpentering and turning herself to all sorts of other traditionally masculine tasks, never once, it seems regretting not having a man about the house to whom she didn't herself give birth. Oh, I would gladly read a novel just about Julie Selmer! But as it is, she merely serves as background, as the early example of womanhood against whom Paul will compare other women, to their detriment; more importantly, as establishing Paul's starting position of regarding religion as a quaint folly of days gone by, not to be taken at all seriously.

At times The Wild Orchid, in its long passages of dialogue between its hero and various avatars of Catholocism, chiefly a woman of his own age whom he has known since childhood who grew up in the faith that  he only ever observed from the outside, reads almost like a religious tract as the woman holds forth for pages and pages about the necessary role dogma plays in human society and how non-Catholics are always more interested in the one priest who breaks his vows than in the 200 who uphold them and how it wasn't really the Church that burned heretics but Society. A reader with zero skin in that game, as I am, is challenged to read through such passages with patience and sympathy, but it's good to make that effort once in a while, no?

And that effort is quite often rewarded, in this book, for it is still Sigrid Undset after all, which means lovely prose and an infectious love and enjoyment of her native land, its seascapes and wildflowers and saeders and farms and little towns and pieces of folk art and buildings old and new, which she shares with her characters and thereby with her readers. I now want to visit Norway almost as much as I want to visit Iceland. Fjord.

*Though really, chronologically, I suppose Dorothy Dunnett was kind of the Sigrid Undset of Scotland?

**It's pretty hard not to think of Scotland's current efforts to secede from the United Kingdom, reading about this. I don't think Scotland will offer to take on, say, Prince Andrew to be their replacement king the way Norway took Hakon, though.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ramez Naam's CRUX

As was true of its predecessor, Nexus, there is a wonderfully thoughtful, speculative exploration on the real world implications of a technology that can connect human minds to the internet of things and to each other buried within Crux.

Deeply, deeply buried to the point of almost being lost.

Which is to say that Crux could have gone one of two ways: it could have fully embraced the neuro/cyberpunk genre it had so much potential to be the greatest new example of, or it could have sunk to the level of techno-thriller with some trace transhuman elements for color.

Crux is, for all its concern with the fate of several groups of cybernetically and neurologically linked children (the Nexus technology, street drug and brain operating system in one, having been seized on early on as a breakthrough therapy for autism, causing thousands of parents to become rogue Nexus users that they might finally communicate and share with their offspring), an action thriller. And a bit of a hot mess of one at that, once it gets going.

For where Nexus contented itself with telling a few people's stories, chiefly Kade's and Samantha's and, to a degree, Su-Yong Shu's, Crux frantically struggles to tell all of the stories, cramming several novels' worth of narratives and ideas (all of which deserve to have been developed at a more leisurely pace, such potential for greatness do they have) into one book and switching, ADD-style, rapidly between storylines, jumping from character to character for just a page or two at a time until the frustrated reader has lost track entirely of what any of these people might remotely have to do with each other except Nexus. They all have something to do with Nexus. Yeah. OK. But wait, what? Who is this person again and why do I care? I thought this chapter was about this other person two continents away? No seriously, who is this person and why do I care?

It got so frustrating I had to put this one down for a while, because I was even losing track of, and sympathy for, the main characters from Nexus. And, of course, tapping my foot through the protracted and frequent bouts of ACKSHUN! Which, admittedly, Naam writes well enough. If you like that sort of thing.

But, I was still curious to see where things were going. And, after all, I liked Nexus enough to name it as an honorable mention for my Definitive Top Ten All Time Desert Island Works of Speculative Fiction list. And the story of Su-Yong Shu, revealed as the first stable uploaded human who had just been walking around in a cloned body in Nexus, and her daughter Ling, was still really moving and compelling and I held out the hope that sooner or later the narrative would get back to them, maybe once everybody else was done shooting everybody else. Which it did, spectacularly if swiftly, setting up a whole new threat for the next novel.

For ultimately, most of what bugged me as I read Crux arose from classic middle chapter problems. The Fellowship, once established, gets broken and everybody has to have his own adventures for a while before the battle at the Black Gate and Mount Doom and the Eagles. The reader must just have faith that all these stories are going to knit back together in the last volume.

Maybe I'm just sick of everything being a trilogy?

Anyway, Crux isn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it's still a cracking good techno-thriller if you're in the mood for one. It's fast paced, full of fighting and explosions and dire threats and drone attacks and stealth goggles and unlimited bandwidth (for me, living in a Wyoming that is still riddled with spots where one can't even get first generation cell service, perfect global connectivity seems the most fantastic element of all) and hey, for what it's worth, no romance, which gives it an extra star right there, from me.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Margaret Atwood's THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

Not so much a sequel as a side-quel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is one of those books that kind of makes me incoherent when someone asks me whether I liked it or not. Kind of like the first book did.

I can understand certain conceits and compulsions in post-apocalyptic fiction. One is telling the story, generally, of the survivors, so the focus is going to be on those survivors, on their lives before Disaster X, on how they survived it and what they do afterwards. And there aren't a lot of ways to do this; most post-apocalyptic fiction goes one of two ways: it either focuses on a group who knew each other before and survived and continue to survive by sticking together, or it tells individual, disparate stories up until the different characters meet and band together -- if they band together -- either during or after Disaster X. To do anything else risks my eye-rolling at its implausibility.

Guess which route Margaret Atwood has taken here?

Well, I've done a lot of eye-rolling.

For the MaddAddam books, Atwood has chosen to go a third way, that of improbably Dickensian coincidence, which, when coupled with overlapping love triangles, makes for a lot of narrative annoyance for this reader. For all The Year of the Flood's leaping about in time, a device that propelled me through Oryx and Crake very satisfyingly as narrative questions kept getting posed and answered all the time, slowly and judiciously, its cleverness is overshadowed by what felt to me like a rookie-caliber blunder, as far as maintaining my willing suspension of disbelief goes.

The Year of the Flood's characters come together -- indeed mostly start out together -- years before the human-engineered pandemic plague created by Crake in the first novel. They are all God's Gardeners, a hippie-ish eco-Catholic cult of sorts*, heavy on the homegrown/DIY ethos, vegan, venerating their own calendar of saints that includes figures like Dian Fossey and Stephen Jay Gould and Euell Gibbons who taught the sort of whole earth/we're all one doctrine that shames bathing and washing too often (waste of water), throwing things away (waste of everything), stepping on beetles, etc. Their leader, Adam One, warns of a coming "Waterless Flood" that will wipe out all human life, waterless because God promised Noah he'd not do that kind of thing again but may have crossed His fingers a bit, and the need to prepare and preserve against it. So, as a group of survivors go, so far, so plausible.

But of course God's Gardeners have enemies, both of the big, soulless corporate and of the nasty, brutish and personal sort, and the group's downfall predates the actual Waterless Flood (the plague) by a good span of time, so everybody gets separated and winds up having to weather the waterless tides as best they can. Which they all do. And this is not much of a spoiler, because all of this novel's jumping around in narrative time pretty much gives that away early on.

So far this stretches but does not break the bounds of plausibility, for me. But then, and again, this is not much of a spoiler, they all find each other again! Amid giant world-wide catastrophe, amid forces that have already pulled them all pretty far apart (one character winds up half a continent away with the plague hits, but still, yep, winds up back in everybody's orbit), and despite the fact that pretty much all of their preparations** were for naught and a bunch of chance miracles were what actually saved them (eye rolling), the heavy hand of fate shoves them all back together again. And again. And again.

But at least Atwood didn't pull a Stephen King and send her characters a bunch of dream prompts and whatnot to make them dance to her tune. For which I am grateful.

But you know what? I read this pretty much compulsively and non-stop, mostly in one long go, despite the eye-rolling. This is mostly because of the world-building, which is still top-notch. Atwood's double-dystopia, as I discussed when I read Oryx and Crake, is as plausible and chilling as her plot is ridiculous, a fascinating wasteland of abandoned Idiocracy-flavored  franchise business complexes, decaying gated communities and fabulous gene-engineered mutant animals and plants. Bunnies that glow green. Half-lion, half-lamb hybrids. Big, beautiful moths developed to eat kudzu but fonder of garden vegetables. Vicious, intelligent pigs. Sheep that grow long, flowing manes of lush human hair in a rainbow of vibrant colors. And somewhere, only hinted at in this novel, there are still the Crakers, the gentle, sexy, pellet-pooping human replacement species created in the previous novel. Atwood has one hell of an imagination, and she let it run wild. But only on the world building.

The final volume of this trilogy, MaddAddam, has just been released. I was really looking forward to it, even though I'd yet to read this second volume until just now. But now? My eagerness is diminished. I'm sure I'll get hold of it and read it sometime, because even with the stale soap opera taste (overlapping love triangles, eww!) The Year of the Flood left in my mouth, it was still loads better than most of the dreck out there, and that's a rarity.

But for now, other volumes beckon. And other tasks. It's autumn, and I've quite a harvest to preserve; I've discovered canning. And I do prefer my food to actually be food. I'd make an okay God's Gardener, actually. I'd just be one of those who tapped my foot through all the rituals and prayers and hymn singing. And I'd probably miss showering kind of a lot.

*Which, ware hokiness (oh, the hymns!) and ware preachiness as well. These are exactly the kind of super-earnest passive-aggressive college hippies you thought you left behind in college. The ones who are basically right about a lot of things, and whose practices you are probably actually following more than not, but who just won't shut up about them. The ones who want to lecture you about the importance of recycling even as you're trundling your recycling container to the curb for pickup. Because really, if you actually cared about the earth, you'd put all those cans and bottles and pieces of junk mail on a trailer and hitch it to your bamboo-built bicycle and pedal the eight miles to the recycling center yourself, and then stay to lecture the staff there about how they really should be using wind and solar power to process the stuff, dude.

**Yes, they made Mormon hoard-type stashes of food and scattered them around in places, but really, they hid them so well that nobody else found them? Nobody? Or are we really just supposed to believe that our little band really were the only survivors in the whole wide world after the plague, which Crake hid in a sex pill? Because only this tiny, tiny band of eco-hippie cultists would eschew a sex pill. Riiiiiiiiiight.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's THE RINGED CASTLE

I could just make this a three word review, you guys. Lymond in Russia. Got that? Lymond in Russia. LYMOND IN RUSSIA YOU GUYS okay that is five but maybe you get it.

But The Ringed Castle, being a Dorothy Dunnett novel and a volume of the Lymond Chronicles, of course has even more than that going on. And a lot of what is going on concerns Lymond only indirectly; it may be all about him, but the action, the intrigue, the driving force, mostly comes from the great and mighty Philippa nee Somerville, his child-bride-on-paper, whom he has sent along back to the British isles while he has moved on to Russia, there to train and equip Ivan the Terrible's army. As one does when one is a mercenary captain, sort-of-nobleman and stubborn Renaissance Man of whom no one is the boss.

Philippa has landed on her feet, back home in England, by which I mean landed a position in the court of Bloody Mary. She's a first-hand witness to that sad queen's phantom pregnancy, frustrating marriage, paranoia about her sister Elizabeth, and all the intrigues of court life ca. Mary Tudor's reign -- but that's not what interests Philippa. No. What interests Philippa is the strange case of Marthe, who traveled with Team Lymond last novel, caused lots of ruckus in her own right, then totally upset the spinet cart by revealing that actually, she's Lymond's sister. But she, ah, didn't grow up in Culter, did she? And she looks pretty much exactly like a female Lymond, so no one thinks she's just an illegitimate half-sister. Something funny was clearly going on in the Crawford family a generation ago. And Philippa is hell-bent on finding out. Go Philippa! The Renaissance Nancy Drew!

Meanwhile and far away, Lymond. Oh, Lymond. For all the magnificence and splendor in which he sets himself up in Russia (with a lot of help from Guzel, former bosswoman of the Suleiman the Great's seraglio) and all the magnificent busy work he get up to trying to bring Russia kicking and screaming into at least the middle ages if not the Renaissance, Lymond is pretty much just sulking. He's got very good reason to sulk, to shut himself down, to withdraw -- the events at the close of Pawn in Frankincense would fell, emotionally, far greater heroes than he, if indeed there are any. But still, he's lost his sparkle, exercising in Russia a mere competence. Admittedly, his mere competence is still far more than most people could hope to strive for, but still. He needs a miracle. He needs Philippa.

But still. This is Lymond. So, even though he's down at the mouth and wounded and scarred and pissed off, he's still making things happen. Politics, social change, sex, action. Oh my goodness, action. Like a midnight hand-to-hand bout in an aviary-cum-orangerie at the top of Lymond's Kremlin palace. Like a moonlit, reindeer-powered sledge race above the Artic Circle brought to fast-paced ruin by the untimely release of Lymond's hunting eagle.* Which just happens to hunt deer.

You're not even coming close to imagining the brilliant chaos of that scene.

But Russia and all of it's crazed and gory glory is only part of the story, which is really and mostly about how Lymond almost gets sucked into the dynastic politics of, that's right, England. Ivan the Terrible decides to send him there to bully negotiate a shipment of weapons and men to teach Russia to make weapons. And Lymond is now the Tsar's man. So off he goes, to the England of Mary Tudor and her consort Phillip, poised to become Elizabethan England, maybe with the help of a little of that Lymond magic? Which no court in Europe can do without? Except of course, Lymond wants just to be left alone to be Lymond, divorce Phillipa (no!) and go back to Russia to play tinpot general and not be married to Guzel. Right?

Oh, things are never so simple where this guy is concerned. We know that, now, surely?

But we also know is that in Phillipa, Lymond has finally met his match.

*Yes, eagle. Lesser men train and hunt with falcons. Lymond has a golden eagle, eight-foot wingspan and all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I have the great and mighty SJ, aka Popqueenie*, to thank for this one, and thank her I do. She's recommended many a good book to me over the course of our friendship, but this is the best one you guys. The very best one. At least so far.

It is also quite undeniably terrible, not in the sense of its being of low quality, but in the original sense of that word "terrible": exciting intense awe or fear. Those who describe The Flame Alphabet as an intellectual horror story hit the mark very well indeed. It should be shelved somewhere between Jose Saramago's Blindness and Tony Burgess' Pontypool Changes Everything.

As in the latter, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with spoken language, but where in Pontypool language is a symptom of a disease/disorder/form of zombie-ism, in The Flame Alphabet language is the disease, but only, at least at first, as it is produced by children: a kid's simplest utterance is an assault; over time, exposure to children's speech produces a horrible degeneration of the very fabric of an adult human's being, hardening and drying out tissues, weakening or dissolving muscles, slowly killing the individual. Parents suffer this first and worst, but eventually everyone feels it, because it's almost impossible to completely avoid children, even if one is a happy spinster. And before the first act of the story is over, this language toxicity has spread to adult speech as well and we discover that children are merely immune.

And like in Blindness, the origin of this situation is somewhat mysterious, misunderstood, sudden. But Marcus locates his disorder squarely in the Judaic/Talmudic tradition, rather than Saramago's inchoate science fictional causelessness. Language, and in particular spoken language, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, created the world; as my beloved Diotallevi observes in Foucault's Pendulum, "god created the universe by speaking; he didn't send a telegram." And there are, apparently (I'm not much of a Biblical scholar, so this was news to me) lots of hints in scripture about speech becoming destructive or dangerous generally, and children's mouths producing poison specifically. Which all makes a certain amount of sense. If the world was created via speech, why would it not be destroyed the same way? But then how might that happen?**

We experience this devastating, horrific situation alongside a father, Sam, who along with wife Claire is barely clinging to life after clinging to their daughter Esther long past the time when most adults have abandoned their children out of self-preservation. Interestingly, Esther's speech is really kind of toxic even before this strange outbreak; she is a sharp, critical, demanding and altogether unpleasant girl, the kind only a mother or father could love but even the most loving parent probably, if he or she were being honest, couldn't really like that much, as shown in this passage that is really describing the situation before the epidemic of poisonous speech:
"What she said was bitter, and we sipped at it and sipped at it, her mother and I, just ever so politely sipped at it until we were sick, because this was the going air inside our house, our daughter talking and singing and shouting and writing... Whatever we thought we wanted, to hug our kiss our daughter, to sit near her, it was our bodies that recoiled first. We cowered and leaned away from her words, we kept our distance..."
This is something I don't often see in fiction (but then, I don't read a lot of fiction about parenthood), this honest admission that sometimes parents don't like their children, but I bet it's a fact of life more often than most of us think. Which makes The Flame Alphabet a very brave as well as a very terrible book.

Later acts in the book reveal Sam as a bit of a Jack Isidore-esque crap artist as he joins the effort to fight language toxicity and sets to work cooking up a lot of quacky remedies, palliatives and, later on, new writing systems. All, needless to say, to no avail. But while he's been faffing around in his play-laboratory, others are actually getting results, though via rather unpleasant and cruel means.

Slyly, this novel comments on -- indeed mocks -- the very hunger for stories that brings readers to novels, especially to speculative fiction novels, swamping us in gorgeous prose, vivid imagery and narrative self-loathing even as it drives home, oh so brilliantly, the point that language might actually be bad for us. We think in it. We preserve thoughts with it. We transmit those thoughts to future generations with it. We've accomplished so much with it. And most of those accomplishments have been as bad for the world as the symbolic salty residue of speech that is overtaking the soil and surface waters of Marcus' fictional world. It's as is we've talked ourselves into the worlds of The Sheep Look Up, of The Road.

This is not comfort reading, not even sort of. But it's very, very good reading, the kind that wins prizes and leaves readers breathless with awe and envy even as they want to take a mental shower to cleanse away its ideas. I'm impressed.

*Who had this book on her Definitive Top Ten All-Time Desert Island Works of Speculative Fiction - Novels list. And it might have to go on mine as well.

**Fascinatingly, the movement of Reconstructionist Judaism plays a huge role in Sam's and Claire's experience of this plague of language. Their religious practice is idiosyncratic and private, consisting of the pair of them retreating to a secret location to listen to radio sermons transmitted by what seems to amount to a form of carrier current radio, in complete privacy. "The rules of the hut were few but they were final. Claire and I were only to go together. We could neither of us attend this synagogue alone. The experience would not be rendered in speech, you could not repeat what you heard, or even that you heard anything... You would not know who else received worship in this manner, neighbors or otherwise... Curiosity about how others worshipped, even others in your family, even Esther, was not genuine curiosity; it was jealousy, weakness." Being a WASPY white girl from Wyoming, I have no way of knowing how much of this represents a genuine practice and how much might have been concocted for this novel -- it suggests so strongly a cause and remedy in one for the novel's overall problem that it almost feels too neat -- but even if it's all just a Borgesian concoction, it's an effing cool one.

Monday, September 9, 2013


So I have final and ultimate proof that Patrick O'Brian is good for what ails you, especially when you're reading the Aubrey/Maturin novels in sequence and just happen to come up on one of your favorites just when you need it the most.

I'd been in another sneaky hate spiral, rage-quitting everything I picked up at the slightest provocation, even books to which I'd been looking forward. I was pretty sure this had nothing to do with their quality, or at least not very much, and everything to do with me. After all, I had just had to put my faithful companion of over 11 years, the Collie of Follie, to sleep and there is still a giant border collie-shaped hole in my home and my life and when I'm home and reading I've always had one hand on her fur.

But so cue Desolation Island, which is, as I've said already, one of my favorites in the Aubrey Maturin mega-series. This novel brings us one of Jack's most memorable ships (the horrible old Leopard), one of the crew's most interesting chases (fleeing the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid), one of the more interesting missions (to Australia, to help deal with the infamous Rum Rebellion against Governor William "Bounty" Bligh and introducing thereby the theme of mutiny, which delicately looms through the novel's various crises without ever really becoming overt), and one of Stephen's most interesting opponent/victims, Louisa Wogan, she of the slight resemblance to Stephen's faithless love interest, Diana, and of the "absurd gurgling laugh" and of the career as a sort of low-rent Aphra Behn.

It is around Wogan that most of the plot revolves; an American spy who got caught, she is sentenced to be transported to Australia, but the powers that be suspect she still has more valuable information to yield up, so instead of chucking her into an ordinary transportation hulk, she is to go on a Royal Navy ship -- the Leopard, under Jack Aubrey's command -- with enough additional prisoners to give her cover. En route, our man Dr. Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon and intelligence agent, is to be set to trick or otherwise extract this information from her. Sounds simple enough, and should be a piece of cake for our man Maturin, except for one giant fly in the ointment: gaol fever, aka typhus, brought on board by some of Wogan's camouflage-prisoners, quickly fatal to all of the people charged with the prisoners' care, including their doctor, and taking its toll on the Leopard's crew as well!

Nor is this their biggest problem as they make their ill-starred way to Australia. Undermanned and underprepared, they run afoul of the aforementioned Waakzaamheid, which I mention again just because it's fun to type "Waakzaamheid" and other hazards, leading them to the titular island and more peril! But it's all just a vehicle for Jack and Stephen to prove their ingenuity, their fitness to survive and command in their separate spheres, their ability to make do with whatever meager resources are at hand, their sheer awesomeness as characters and Men of the Early Nineteenth Century. Hooray!