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Trying again . . .

  • May 23, 1999
This is the fourth time I've attempted to place a review of this book on-line. Well maybe the fourth is the charm.

This tale's a sweeping adventure about English (and other) pirates in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic along the southern African coastline during the days of English-Dutch colonial conflict in the 17th century. The first quarter of the book, unfortunately, is tiresome as it's rife w/cliches: the noble Sir Francis Courtney ("pirate" captain and knight of the order of something or other), his eager and bright-eyed young son Hal, the African sidekick and all around noble savage, Aboli, and, of course, all the de rigeuer bad guys (the lovely and sexually sadistic Katrina, her fat malevolent husband, the Dutch governor, the treacherous first mate, the evil pirate captain and comrade, etc.). But, oddly enough, the tale does catch fire once the characters get mixed up with one another and end up in Cape Town. Although the plot is mechanical and the characters little more than cardboard cut-outs, the writing (including sharp descriptions of the African flora and fauna, life aboard ship and lots of taut action) does have a certain zing to it. I did find the evil and thick headed Dutch colonel (in the service of the fat governor) somewhat annoying (though he was the "perfect" villain w/his shaved pate and waxed moustachios -- shades of Simon LeGree!) and I thought the torturer, Slow John, another bit of overkill, if you'll pardon the "sort-of-pun." But Smith can write action scenes -- when he's not larding the plot with villains and nefarious encounters, along with one cliche after another (lots of duels to the death, ambushes, daring escapes, fierce sea battles, etc.). His female love interests are also so perfect and so wooden you'll think them puppets. (I can't remember the names or very much else about the two lovely gals who give up everything for the dashing young Hal except that each is lovelier than all other fair maids in the world and, of course, loyal and self-sacrificing to the core.) In fact there's too much here generally. One action scene after another drives this plot. Reminded me of the worst of television. But, oddly, and I have to admit this here, it kept me reading. Aside from the nicely turned phrases and descriptions of the terrain and the action, or perhaps because of this, the book does hold the reader to it. So what if the characters are barely real? The prose is peppy (after the early parts, I must hasten to add) so, in sum, I think I can see why Smith manages to make a living at this stuff. But it doesn't hold a candle to the great pirate literature of the past (am thinking of Sabatini's Captain Blood here, or Stevenson's Treasure Island). On the other hand, the gratuitous sex and mayhem perhaps speaks more to our modern sensibilities. I was a little troubled by the double climax which seemed to throw away a wonderful confrontation between hero and villain at the end . . . after the book had, to all intents and purposes, already come to a crashing and fiery halt. But I guess Smith just figured he had to get that one last duel into the mix. And couldn't forego the earlier climax for it. So what the hey, give 'em two! The reader probably won't know the difference anyway! Three stars for this one, on the basis of a strong and dynamic narrative engine. Nothing more. -- SWM

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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Look up "classic adventure novel" in the dictionary and you'll find the strong and capable features of South Africa's own Wilbur Smith, who--in books as varied and enjoyable asRiver God,The Seventh Scroll,When the Lion Feeds, andThe Diamond Hunters--displays an awesome storytelling ability. His latest is one of his best efforts: a richly detailed story of war and piracy on the high seas in 1667, 150 years beforePatrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin books.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 0312963815
ISBN-13: 978-0312963811
Author: Wilbur Smith
Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks

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