The overall narrative of the books follows the experiences of Edmund Talbot, a wealthy young man on the lower levels of the aristocracy who, having been secured employment in the office of the Governor of New South Wales by his uncle, books passage on a sailing ship to the Australian colonies early in the nineteenth century and keeps a journal of his experiences over the voyage. Talbot thus chronicles the interplay, relationships and conflicts between himself, his fellow passengers, and the crew of the ship, and as the long isolated voyage takes it's toll on everyone, the seething tensions lurking under the surface ensure that he will have plenty to write about...
As with Lord of the Flies, a key theme of the novels is the struggle between the values of civilisation and humanity's darker, more savage urges, particularly when small groups of people find themselves isolated from the rest of the world.
Provides examples of:
- Amusing Injuries: Whenever Talbot re-concusses his head.
- Antiquated Linguistics: Done so well that it's very easy to forget that it was written in the 1980s. The language, coupled with the epistolary form, perfectly captures the feeling of a far older novel.
- Captain Oblivious: Oh, Edmund.
- Conveniently an Orphan: Miss Chumley. Not-so-conveniently, she has guardians.
- Covers Always Lie: The DVD cover would have you believe Sam Neill is the star, while in fact he plays a very minor character.
- Deliberately Distressed Damsel: Talbot seems to think Zenobia is playing one when she panics, assuming the gunshot they hear is the French attacking, and her fright causes Talbot to prematurely ejaculate.
- The Drunken Sailor: All of them.
- Elephant in the Living Room: Do not speak of the wave in the bottom of the ship.
- French Jerk: Talbot considers Benet to be this.
- Foreshadowing: It's remarkable how many details Talbot includes that he doesn't seem to realize the significance of.
- Hot Librarian: Miss Graham to Mr Talbot
- It Will Never Catch On: The captains' reactions when Talbot envisions a seafaring steamship.
- Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Captain Anderson
- Love at First Sight:"The lightning that struck the top of the mizzenmast ran down, and melted the conductor into white hot drips. The mast split and flinders shot every way into the mist. The deckhead burst open and the electrical fluid destroyed me. It surrounded the girl who stood before me with a white line of light."
- Manly Tears: Talbot has lots of feelings.
- My Secret Pregnancy: This is very easy to miss, but adds a tragic component to the story and (yet another) death on poor Edmund's hands, though he seems to be entirely oblivious to it. In the first book, after his one-night-stand with Zenobia Brocklebank, Edmund tells her that if a happy accident were to occur, they would cross that bridge when SHE came to it. Not long after that, Zenobia takes to her cabin and is not seen again, presumably suffering from sickness. She is barely given a passing mention, and Edmund never seems to wonder about her health. Cut to the very end of the third book, as Edmund is reminiscing about the fate of his shipmates. He recalls offhandedly a letter from Mr. Brocklebank saying that Zenobia had died a few months after the voyage, with parting words to Edmund being "I am crossing the bridge." He laughs it off as nonsense, as there were no literal bridges in the area at the time. I may not have remembered the line from the first book myself, if it hadn't stuck out as being really funny in the mini-series (where she was not shown to have taken ill at all). Indeed I had thought that perhaps she had gotten pregnant and miscarried, as so much was made of Mrs. East's miscarriage tat the beginning and its effects on her health. The obvious implication, however, was that she was pregnant with Edmund's child and died either in childbirth or soon after it. YMMV, but for me this cast a dark shadow over Edmund's entire happy ending. A young woman carried his child, deteriorating and eventually dying, completely unnoticed by him, yet made clear to the reader. For all his development and for all his maturation, he remains in some ways, naive.
- Oblivious to His Own Description: Near the end of the first book, Talbot overhears people discussing someone with a "Gothic" worldview, but who is nonetheless fairly likeable and not completely stupid. He assumes they are talking about Summers, though it is far more likely they are referring to him.
- Right Through the Wall: Talbot spends a couple of chapters trying to figure out how to avoid this. And he was right to be concerned.
- Rule of Three: Talbot climbs through three levels and meets three "monsters" before making his way to the magazine room in the bowels of the ship.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: In Talbot's opinion, the money lender's "life insurance" is breaking some kind of rule, even though he remains oblivious to his own significant class and wealth privileges.
- Upper-Class Twit: Talbot, of course.