Review: ‘Castaways of the Flying Dutchman’ by Brian Jacques

As most of you know, I am a major admirer of the literary work of Brian Jacques (see my previous post on the Redwall series here). His writing has been a source of amusement as well as inspiration for me since the age of 18. I recently read through the Castaways of the Flying Dutchman trilogy, and thought I’d share my critiques as well as what I liked about this lesser publicized series by the beloved YA author.

The first book of this series, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, is very much the best, in my opinion. It introduces the main characters of Ben and his dog Ned, and gives the background as to how they came to be cursed. The majority of the book takes place in a small rustic English town in 1896, which is under threat from London developers who wish to mine some valuable mineral resources nearby.

I like this first installment best because Victorian England is always a great setting for stories (and having seen plenty of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, I can picture the scenery much more easily). I think it helps that it is the first volume in the series too, as the novelty factor makes interesting some of the gimmicks (like the mental interactions between the boy and his dog) that become a little stale later on in the series.

What I don’t like about the first book are just a couple of things. The historical references made in it are interesting, but at times it feels like it is just a form of “name dropping” on the author’s part. It gets the point across that these two have been around for centuries, but seems a tad forced at times. Secondly is the fact that the baddies are somewhat inept corporate goons. Making big business the enemy is trite enough, but making them inept on top of everything else kind of drops the threat level. This can be a bit refreshing if you’re used to Jacques’s Redwall books in which problems seem to come up left and right at times, but on its own, it makes the whole thing a little less thrilling. It’s more about how the good guys will win rather than if they will.

The second installment, The Angel’s Command, takes place much earlier in the lives of the two immortals (approximately 1628). One odd thing about this story is that it suggests the boy and dog have been around for many decades in their cursed state already, yet in the previous book, their fateful voyage appears to have been made only in 1620. At any rate, the first half of this adventure is particularly thrilling if you like high seas stories. Again there is a good deal of history involved, but this time in more of a present-moment setting rather than simply listed off like in the previous book. The second half of the story takes place in the Pyrenees, and is a little more conventional for Jacques, though the travelling companions Ben picks up are kind of interesting.

This is a decent one, particularly in the first half. The second half of the story also holds some thrills, albeit some oddities as well. I would say my biggest beef with this one is historical. The attempt to make a noble figure out of a pirate in the first half is a bit hard to swallow. And the fact that this pirate holds slaving in contempt is even harder to handle. There were no doubt exceptions even in the early 17th century, but most Europeans at that time–especially opportunistic wave-robbers–would not have given a moment’s pause to consider the moral ills of slavery, even if they might find the trade itself distasteful. Imposing modern viewpoints on characters supposed to be from previous eras is a major no-no for me.

The third and final installment, Voyage of the Slaves, takes place around 1703, and is in some ways the best and worst of the series at once. It tells of how Ben is taken captive, escapes, then proceeds to dart about the Mediterranean dodging the slaver who took him captive in the first place while trying to rescue his friends who were fooled into boarding the slaver ship.

The most interesting parts are again (for me) the historical references, as well as the slightly more action-oriented nature of the story. The villains actually have some degree of competency in this book, and so seem like a real threat. It helps that the slaver himself is also a trickster, which keeps you guessing as to his intents early on.

What I dislike about this book most is the implausibility of it all. The fact that there is a troupe of travelling performers from disparate parts of Christian Europe and a couple of African girls travelling along the Barbary Coast–a known nest of piracy at the time–while perhaps not impossible, is a very peculiar starting point indeed. Additionally, the idea that a man as calculating as the slaver would take his massive cargo ship out of its way to chase down the boy and his dog seems a bit of an odd move. (Additionally, at the very beginning, Ben is captured from a small boat which, if the same one he received at the end of the previous book, would have to be one sturdy craft indeed to weather almost 75 years at sea!)

Overall, Castaways is a decent series (3.5 of 5 stars) with enough thrills to keep the devoted reader interested. However, I would not say it really measures up to Redwall. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that Brian Jacques is very much an imaginative fantasy author. This works great for a world of anthropomorphic Medieval critters with clearly defined good and evil, but when applied to historical fiction–a genre which demands a bit more adherence to realism–does not quite cut it. Therefore, while I would certainly recommend it to Jacques fans (and anyone who’s looking for a well-written story to pass the time with, really), I would say it is not exactly for everybody. Particularly folks whose sense of logic can interfere with the suspension of reality required to read high fantasy literature.

Have you read this series? How would you rate it? Give me your thoughts below!

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is an author, linguist, historian, and nature-lover based out of Kansas City, Missouri. He has previously published several short pieces in various local and online venues. Among these are the short stories "The Buck" and "The Otter Kit Streamer", which won 1st and 2nd place respectively in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the academic journal, 'Shorelines'. His first novel, 'Sauragia', was published in October of 2020.

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