By Daniel Fierman
Updated February 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

In 1815, American captain James Riley and his 11 men were shipwrecked off the Moroccan coast and washed ashore on the cliffs below the Sahara. There they were captured and enslaved by an odd galaxy of Muslim nomads and scraped by for two months on the likes of camel milk and urine. Only half of them survived. A highly skilled chronicler, King is almost pornographic in his description of physical pain: Skin bubbles, eyeballs burn, lips blacken, and men shrivel to less than 90 pounds. It’s sensational stuff. But the chapters that bookend the crew’s slog through the sand — especially the opening 70 pages on 19th-century shipping that seem to have sprung directly from Patrick O’Brian’s dustiest notebooks — almost capsize King’s otherwise fine, salty tale.