No mere travelogue of palm-fringed beaches and photogenic natives, Tim Severin's The Spice Islands Voyage is a rewarding mix of historical biography, contemporary adventure travel, and firm (but not shrill) warnings for the future of this exotic East Indonesian island group. As he relates his experiences sailing the archipelago in an indigenous prahu, Severin brings to life both the lush, volcano-spawned isles and Alfred Wallace, the 19th-century British naturalist whose myriad travels here provide the blueprint for Severin's own journey. A shy, self-taught naturalist with a gift for intuitive leaps of genius, Wallace authored a groundbreaking essay (conceived and written in the Spice Islands) on natural selection--an essay his idol, Charles Darwin, may have "mined" for his own theory of evolution.
Now, 140 years later, Severin sets forth to see how the clear turquoise waters, teeming reefs, and wildly diverse animal life that entranced and inspired Wallace have fared. Searching out boldly feathered birds of paradise, graceful green sea turtles, blue-capped maleos, and black-crested macaques, he finds reason for both hope and despair. In some regions, a blend of traditional subsistence hunting and human ingenuity has allowed imperiled species to hold their own; in others, shortsighted greed is decimating one of the most varied plant and animal kingdoms on earth.
Well written, generously illustrated, and powerfully evocative, The Spice Islands Voyage opens a window onto a fascinating historical figure and the precarious state of the islands he loved. --Rebecca Gleason