‘Have consulted most learned and expensive astrologers in entire city,’ said Li Han, wringing his hands and dropping his bundle, ‘and unanimous prognostication is utterly lugubrious. The soothsayers, the casters of the sacred sticks, the diviners of feng-shui and the readers of the auspices all cry with one voice that journeys commenced today must meet ill-fortune and encounter physical violence. All types of esteemed seers and prophets say the same, alas, alas.’

‘You don’t believe all that rot, do you, Li Han?’ asked Derrick, who believed at least half of it himself, in spite of being a missionary’s child – one cannot go to sea and be brought up in China without superstition soaking through one’s skin.

I had a friend in school who was a big fan of Patrick O’Brian’s naval fiction. I used to laugh at her – books about boats, the very idea! Also around this time the controversy had first broke about O’Brian disguising his German heritage, so he had become something of a bete noire in the literary press. Of course now my old friend is a renowned medical specialist and I’m a bum living off my savings in Australia. Mayhap my life took a wrong turn somewhere. Of course, now that I am trying to ignore my prejudices towards O’Brian’s fiction, I have gone and chosen a book that does not even qualify as naval fiction!

While the adventures of young Derrick begin at sea, in the care of sea-captain uncle Sullivan, the crew soon dock at the port of Tchao-King. They find the Professor, a cousin of Derrick’s who specializes in archaeology. The young man is thrilled when he is asked to accompany the learned gentleman on an expedition through the Asian steppe to Samarcand. The crew of Sullivan’s vessel the Wanderer set off on a journey across the treacherous landscape.

It is a long road ahead and the expedition faces multiple dangers, from Mongol tribesmen to invading Kazakh armies and interfering Russian agents. Derrick’s companions include the Professor, who remains oblivious to most dangers, that disguises an underlying resolve; ship’s cook Li Han, who is overawed to be in the company of an academic; Olaf, a Swedish crewman who acts the buffoon, but is a fatal opponent in a fight; as well as Sullivan and his trusted second, a Scotsman known as Ross. Slowly Derrick comes to learn that life both on the seas and on land can be quite complicated. A man can live as a pirate, but still have an honest character, whereas governors who represent the interests of official authorities can be little more than warlords.

I was surprised at the oldschool feel of this novel. First published in 1954, apparently fifteen years before the beginning of O’Brien’s well-known Aubrey-Maturin series, the story resembles James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. It is an adventure serial with groan-worthy humour and thrilling battles against ‘natives’.

I was consequently surprised at some of the attitudes expressed in the novel. For such a relatively recent book, it depicts the Chinese (and the Mongol tribesmen encountered on the steppe) as being largely primitive, easily manipulated by outside forces. The negative external influence is represented by the Communist Russian operatives who supply tribesmen with weapons to destabilize the region. Derrick and his friends, through trickery and quick-thinking, survive the plot, with Ross and Sullivan discussing how it is a shame that the Mongol tribes are not ready for the arrival of modernity.

Much of the humour within the book is also dependent on racial stereotyping. Li Han speaks in a painfully exact form of English, learned from literally reading the dictionary from cover to cover. Olaf’s dialogue is rendered in a lazy brogue that reflects his slow understanding. Yet at the same time, O’Brien has the Professor speak in misunderstood American slang, in an effort to put Derrick at ease. The characters as a result possess a leaden quality, which is a shame, as O’Brien has a great gift for description and a ready wit.

I assume this is the first book of a series, as it ends on something of a cliffhanger. While I will not be in a hurry to track down the sequel, I have to say it was interesting and I am intrigued enough that I will look up Master and Commander.