The further I get into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, the more it feels like one long story, with each book just chronicling a new set of incidents in that story. So it’s harder to point to a specific novel and say, “this is the one about …” But, I shall try, if only to provide a refresher for myself when I pick up the next book.
The Nutmeg of Consolation is the 14th book in the series, and the second book in a five-volume circumnavigation of the globe. It begins where The Thirteen-Gun Salute left off, with Jack and Stephen and the crew of the Diane stranded on an island in the South China Sea. Their attempt to build a schooner is foiled by a group of Dyak pirates. But just as their rations are about to run out, Stephen meets some Chinese children who were on the island collecting birds’ nests, and after Stephen helps one of them with an injury, he asks their father to take them to Batavia.
In Batavia, Jack is given command of a newly captured ship, which he names The Nutmeg of Consolation. The Nutmeg leaves for New South Wales and, on the way, gets into battle with a French ship and is saved by the Surprise. Jack takes over command of the Surprise, and the ship sails to New South Wales, where Stephen and fellow naturalist Martin are astonished at the wildlife and learn that platpuses are more dangerous than you might think.
All are shocked at the brutal treatment of prisoners in the colony, and Stephen works to help his former assistant Padeen, who was sent to the colony for theft and is now becoming sick from the beatings, which only get worse when he attempts to escape. On top of that, they have to find a good home for a pair of Melanesian girls they found on a island whose other inhabitants had all been wiped out from smallpox. There’s also some Irish intrigue that I couldn’t follow very well. And Stephen loses his fortune, only to find that he didn’t lose it. Diane has a baby girl, making Stephen especially eager to get home.
This was one of the less exciting books in the series, because there’s no single problem or great drama. What suspense there is usually dissipates quickly, and the story moves on to something else. Instead, the focus is on enjoying the characters and setting, seeing different parts of the world and encountering different people, and I enjoy all of that very much. It is very much a book about the journey rather than a plot that presses toward a destination.