The Far Side of the World
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The Surprise is given a reprieve at Gibraltar—a mission to stop the American privateer Norfolk from taking English whalers in the Pacific. Stephen is warned of a danger to the packet Danaë, which is carrying hidden intelligence money.
They set sail with a big head start. Aboard are Pullings, sailing as a volunteer to beef up his claim to a command; Allen, the master, an experienced whaler; Hollom, a passed mid whom Jack takes out of charity; Martin, Stephen’s chaplain friend; Higgins, Stephen’s assistant, very unskilled except as a dentist; and Horner, a bloody minded and impotent gunner, traveling with his beautiful younger wife.
Despite calms, they take station off Brazil before the Norfolk, but are damaged by lightning. The Norfolk passes while they are refitting in a river, and gains further when they run aground.
The Surprise recaptures the Danaë from an inexperienced American prize crew; Stephen removes the secret funds, which were well hidden, and learns from the letters aboard that the enemy frigate will call at Juan Rodrigeuz Island and the Galapagos to hunt whalers, before heading to Captain Palmer’s secret paradise to settle some colonists who wish to be “far from their countrymen.” Pullings captains Danaë in.
The Surprise is delayed again rounding the Horn.
Meanwhile, Hollom has begun an affair with Mrs. Horner, using a song as a signal to meet. Mrs. Horner soon comes to Stephen for an abortion, and when he refuses, Higgins botches the job. At length she recovers however, long enough to go ashore on Rodrigez. When the Surprise weighs in a hurry to pursue a distant frigate (only a neutral Spaniard), Mr. Horner returns to the ship and reports that Hollom and his wife have deserted, though he obviously murdered them. Horner, taken to mimicing Hollom’s singing in nights of drunken madness, then dispenses with Higgins by giving him a “Jonah’s lift” over the side in the dead of night. As the ship is surrounded by the unnatural wail of some unknown creature, he hangs himself.
Happiness returns in the absense of the successive Jonahs, Hollom and Horner, and the Surprise retakes the whaler Acapulco. Its prize-crew commander, Palmer’s nephew, accidently reveals the location of the “paradise” to Stephen when talking anthropology, so, failing to find the Norfolk in the Galapagos (where Stephen is cross at not being allowed ashore), with the assitance of Hogg and some marooned whalers, they head for Huahiva in the Marquesas Islands.
En route, Stephen falls out the cabin windows. When Jack dives in to save him, his hails cannot be heard over the party on deck. They are miraculously picked up after twelve hours by a group of native women sailing to escape the tyranny of men, and while the elders seem to want to castrate Jack, Stephen’s few native words and the persuasion of the youth lead the native captain to maroon them instead. After a day ashore, they are rescued by a launch that Lieutenant Mowett had row eight hours against the wind on a hunch.
No sooner are they back aboard than the Surprise is caught in a hurricane. A nasty fall leaves Stephen in a coma, and the ship nearly flounders before it reaches Old Sodbury’s Island in the Marqueas, where they find the Norfolk wrecked in the channel, and her crew marooned. Ashore, Stephen recovers from his coma moments before the overly keen American doctor begins drilling his skull.
Captain Palmer claims the war is over, but Jack suspects something’s amiss when Palmer refuses to allow his men to be taken prisoner as a formality, a fact confirmed when his coxwain Bonden learns many of the Norfolks were mutineers in the HMS Hermione, the colonists referred to in the letter. They have good reason to be shy of their countrymen, since mutineers are hanged when recaptured.
When the Surprise is forced off the shore by the gale, tensions rise between Jack's party and the desperate fugitives. Spotting what he takes as an American whaler from the top of a mountain, Jack has his men make weapons and adapt their small boat to make the 400 mile trip to rejoin the ship. It seems Palmer (his officers gone in prize-crews or dead in the wreck) has lost control to the former Hermiones, who when they spot the American whaler days later launch an attack. However, the outnumbered Surprises are saved at the last minute when the whaler is revealed to be no whaler at all, but the Surprise in disguise.
Although the ending was very confusing—no explanation for the Surprise’s disguise (if it even was disguised; it could be damage) or how the Americans, let alone Jack, could have mistaken it—this was an excellent edition to the series. The first 150 pages of fitting out the ship and sailing to Brazil were kind of dull, but the plots of Hollom, the native women, and the Norfolks on shore were all highly entertaining, some of the best in the series so far. My only regret is that there was no follow-up on Mr. Wray or the ungoing intelligence war, but an old fashion naval adventure is very welcome after the intrigue of recent books. (8/30/05)