The survivors of a shipwreck in the South Pacific decide the priorities of their lives during WWII. A wounded Japanese soldier falls for his American nurse aboard a WWII hospital ship. The nurse's brother-in-law is a bumbling captain who cannot handle even a lowly hospital ship, let alone commanding a group of survivors on an island. The ship's traitor is a thin character whose every move is so predictable that the only surprise is that the captain is so stupid as to not see his every move.
John Shors novel Beside a Burning Sea features survivors a bombed WWII hospital ship in the South Pacific. The readers immediately learn that one of them had betrayed the ship to his Japanese informants. The rest of the survivors, including the ship's captain, his wife Isabelle and her sister, must swim to a nearby island while aware that their ship and comrades are drowned. Two middle-America servicemen survive due to the seafaring know-how of an 11-year old Fijian stowaway searching for his drafted father. One of the nurse-sisters, in a malaria-weakened state, is saved during the swim by the Japanese patient with an injured leg.
The Japanese prisoner-patient and his nurse, Annie, develop a romance due to their common interest in poetry, a haiku theme that Shors forces through every chapter; and to Annie's gratitude for his having saved her. The Japanese prisoner works hard to prove that he is not an enemy of his companions on the island. He harbors a life-changing guilt for allowing a little Chinese girl to be raped by his own platoon earlier in the war. He is the first to suspect that the traitor is among them and a Japonophone.
Ratu from Fiji teaches the American landlubbers how to fish with a spear and other tactics. Jake, a Black American, takes to the boy whose skin color is close to his own and whose quest to find his father and return home to Fiji with a full family intact matches a life Jake recognizes.
Eventually, the traitor's communication with the Japanese, the captain's own guilt over his ship's demise, the romance between two enemies, Isabelle's pregnancy, and Jake's and Ratu's relationship become compromised by a great storm followed by the storming of the Japanese navy upon the island. The captain must save his wife and baby and his charges, defeat the traitor and abscond into hiding from the enemy navy.
Best part of story, including ending:
The characters were so thin it was maddening. No human being is all good or all bad. Each of these characters was one or the other. There was no suspense.
Best scene in story:
The two nurses and their patient, an enemy, are swimming to the closest island after jumping the sinking ship. Annie, a nurse, feels so weak and afraid that she starts to sink amid her panic and weakened state. The reader does feel her panic. The reader then feels her rescuer's power. He swims with her on his back in his injured state. He is propelled by his guilt of war crimes.
Opinion about the main character:
Joshua Collins, the sunken ship's captain, is a wimp. He has no substance. There probably was a shortage of qualified captains during the war, but this one was so wimpy and stupid he was not even qualified to sail a hospital ship. This idiocy might have made a good character, but it was Shors's lack of development that made him such.