Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Five
… The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser…
Welcome back to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. Last time, I left you with a taste of epic fantasy, in the form of The Lightstone by David Zindell, so what better way to resume the series than with another epic tale, this one of swashbuckling adventure and derring-do on the high seas?
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser is a wonderful romp through pirate lore, with a comic turn that has, without a shadow of a doubt, influenced my own writing over the years. First published in 1983, it predates Pirates of the Caribbean by two decades, yet many of the scenes and situations it describes would not be out of place in that particular movie series. I have a copy of the 2003 edition, which incidentally came out around the same time as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and I have to say that when it comes to dishonesty, scurrilousness and downright self-serving behaviour then Fraser’s Colonel Tom Blood outshines Captain Jack Sparrow in every respect.
The Pyrates is a novel in three parts, with each part building on the one before. It follows the convoluted adventures of the aforementioned rogue, Colonel Tom Blood (cashiered) and Captain Benjamin Avery, hero of the Royal Navy, as they battle their way around the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and the Cape of Good Hope, to Madagascar and back again. Along the way, we stop off on remote desert islands, pirate ports and the lair of Don Lardo, the reptilian viceroy of the Spanish stronghold in Cartagena.
The main vehicle for the series of misadventures that befall the heroic Ben Avery and the decidedly anti-heroic Tom Blood, is a crown, fashioned with six great gems, which must be delivered from England to the African King who commissioned it. Of course, when Tom Blood gets to hear of its existence, he wants the crown for himself, as do the six great pirate lords that sail the high seas. I won’t tell you who gets there first, but the shenanigans that follow ensure that both Blood and Avery get tested to their respective limits.
One of the things that makes The Pyrates such an enjoyable read are the supporting characters. While Ben Avery and Tom Blood are as black and white as you can get, in terms of their principal qualities, the six pirate lords add varying shades of grey to the mix, while Lady Vanity, the Admiral’s daughter and Avery’s sweetheart, is a study in bimboism and snobbishness, who would be equally at home in Sloane Square, a trendy New York cocktail bar or the back seat of a Range Rover.
Without giving too much away as far as the pirates are concerned, we have Calico Jack Rackham, immaculate in dress, less than immaculate in thought and leader of the pirate band by the simple virtue of being literate. Then there is Black Bilbo, an ex-guttersnipe, who is deadly with a rapier and harbours dreams of being a gentleman. Firebeard is a giant of a man, who ties firecrackers in his beard and sings the kind of sea-shanties that would get you kicked out of any self-respecting parish choir, while Black Sheba (the She-Wolf) is an ex-Barbados slave, with a taste for Pierre Cardin and a hatred for men that would rival even the most radical of 1960s feminists. Akbar the Terrible, hawkish, hairy and of the Islamic persuasion, runs a crew of slaves and has a penchant for gold lame trousers, while Happy Dan Pew, is a poor unfortunate, who, after suffering a blow on the head as a child, came to believe that he was a French filibuster, even though he can barely speak a word of the language beyond that in the Collins Primer!
Then there are the minor characters, such as King Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Goliath, the dwarf who accompanies Black Bilbo wherever he goes. All serve to help move the story along and make The Pyrates a far richer tale for their brief presence in the book.
Now, just for a moment, turn your thoughts to the Brethren Court in Pirates of the Caribbean. Comprised of nine pirate lords, rather than six, it is interesting to see a Frenchman (Chevalle), an ex-slave (Joacard), an Englishman with gentlemanly pretensions (Barbossa) and the terror of the Arabian Sea (Sumbahjee) among their midst. It is likely just a coincidence, however, if you have ever read The Pyrates, then it is the sort of thing that does make you raise an eyebrow in curious speculation.
George MacDonald Fraser is, to my mind, a master of both humour and the burlesque. Consider the following excerpt from The Pyrates:
She was not tall, but her carriage was that of a fashion model who has been to a Swiss finishing school and knows she has the equipment to stop a battalion of Rugby League players in their tracks with the flick of a false eyelash…
… Captain Avery and Colonel Blood stood together by the rail, drinking her in – one in respectful worship, the other with thoughts of black silk bedclothes and overhead mirrors.
In just a few lines, he captures the characters of both Colonel Blood and Captain Avery, while at the same time giving us a compelling image and insight into the kind of woman that Lady Vanity is.
Another area where Fraser excels, is in mixing up the old and the new. In fact, this is one of the things that I enjoy most about The Pyrates. Fraser takes the Seventeenth Century and liberally peppers it with Twentieth Century references. Purists would undoubtedly hate this molestation of history, but I love it. Consequently, we have references to Gucci, Cartier and Marvel Comics and that is just on one page! For me, this is what makes The Pyrates so special. Not only do we have an excellent historical adventure story, but we get to observe it and laugh from a modern perspective.
Then there is the pure silliness. One of my favourite examples is where Ben Avery renames a pirate ship that he has single-handedly captured. We are not told what his instructions to the pirate signwriter were, but when the name is revealed, he is horrified to read ‘The Glodden Vatiny’ on the rear of the vessel, rather than ‘The Golden Vanity’. I still laugh about that one every time I think about it!
I mentioned the historical nature of The Pyrates above and this is something else that George MacDonald Fraser excels at, interweaving unique fictional characters and situations into a historically accurate background. Anyone who has read the wonderful Flashman Papers will know what I am talking about. In that series, he took a fictional figure, Harry Flashman, from the book, Tom Brown’s School Days, and placed him into history with a precision that was unnerving.
The same is true of The Pyrates. At the end of the book, Fraser briefly introduces the real-life individuals that inspired some of his characters and I have no doubt in believing that he more than thoroughly researched both the geography and history of seafaring and piracy in the Seventeenth Century, before setting pen to paper or finger to typewriter. As always, it is a case of knowing the rules before you break them and Fraser acknowledges this in the afterword, when he talks about some of the artistic liberties that he took when writing the novel, particularly those involving the time taken to make some of the sea journeys.
The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser, is a fantastic book and one that is worthy of a place on anyone’s bookshelf, unless they have an aversion to pirates or the sea, in which case I would suggest that they leave it well alone.
As with all of the books I have covered so far, The Pyrates impact on me has been enormous. I love mixing up the old and the new in my writing and have probably done this most explicitly with my Fotherington-Tomas series of short stories. Incidentally, I freely admit that I followed Fraser’s lead with Flashman and lifted my protagonist, Fotherington-Tomas, from a pre-existing book by another author. You can check it out here if you are interested. Although some people might think that this is a little cheeky or disrespectful, in my view, I believe it is a way to breathe new life into existing fictional characters and take them in directions that their original authors would never have imagined. Call it a homage, if you will, to the brilliance of the originators that came before. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is it not?
So, in a Cartier-diamond-encrusted nutshell, thank you George MacDonald Fraser for giving the world The Pyrates. More people these days might be familiar with Pirates of the Caribbean, but you got there first and for my money, did it far, far better!
With only two more books to cover in the series, it is anyone’s guess as to what will pop up next. Pride and Prejudice? A Tale of Two Cities? 2001 – A Space Odyssey? Place your bets here and make sure that you check out the next instalment of Seven Books in Seven Weeks!