This adventure story, set in the Far East, was originally published in 1954; it predates the naval warfare novels that made O’Brian (1914–2000) famous.
Derrick, an American teenager in China between the World Wars, recently lost both his missionary parents, but don’t feel badly for him; he’s a spirited lad, enjoying his apprenticeship on a schooner in the South China Sea. He’s there because its skipper Sullivan, a resourceful man of action, is his uncle. They’re on their way to meet Professor Ayrton, an elderly English archaeologist and Derrick’s cousin; Ayrton wants the boy to attend school, the one thing Derrick dreads. As a palliative, the kindly prof suggests postponing school until they’ve made an overland journey to Samarcand, the legendary Central Asian city; there will be archaeological digs en route. The schooner is dry-docked, and the group sets off from Peking, joined by two sailors, a Scot and a Swede, the ship’s cook Li Han and three Mongols with their pack animals. They will travel the Old Silk Road on horseback, crossing the Gobi desert and Mongolia; the principal danger will be rival warlords. Sure enough, Sullivan and Ross, the Scotsman, are soon taken prisoner by the villainous Shun Chi, who’s in league with the Russians. The frail professor, discovering in himself a “transient thirst for blood,” leaps into action. By impersonating a Russian he frees the two men, and threatens a warlord with his own revolver. This is dramatic, but only up to a point, for we know the good guys will emerge unscathed. Only much later, when the group is forced to enter a valley in Tibet haunted by the Abominable Snowman and three of the group are left for dead, does the action have real bite. A miraculous escape in a Russian helicopter from some hostile monks completes the story.
A likable if far-fetched jaunt; O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.