Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Review: The Brethren Prince by Ira Smith

The Brethren Prince by Ira David Smith might well be one of the definitive novels of piracy and privateering in the Caribbean. Following the life of James Ketcham, it shows us historically accurate life among the buccaneers of Hispaniola, in the famous pirate haven of Tortuga and in several other historical locations on the islands and on the mainland. The novel certainly has some drawbacks, but they are outweighed by the good parts.

The novel begins with a nighttime shipwreck and the survival of James Ketcham as he washes onto the shores of Hispaniola. He is discovered there by a buccaneer who sees his potential and teaches him the craft of the huntsmen. In a pulp novel tradition, James shows himself to be superior to his fellow people and easily masters anything that he sets his mind on. He sets up his own plantation on Tortuga, finds himself a wife and everything seems to go his way until the Spanish attack the island and destroy his life. From then on, James' life goal changes to that of vengeance and he uses any means necessary to track down those who took his wife from him.

The novel is certainly not fast-paced and some sections of self-reflection on the part of James can even be called meandering. There's action enough to call it an adventure novel, but the author takes great pains to describe life in its various ways on the Caribbean, including history of the natives, slavery, flora and fauna and naturally the Spanish cruelty and domination. For the most part, these details seem accurate to the period, but I did notice some problems with the author's knowledge of weaponry and related terminology. At one point, one of the characters picks up a pistol, pulls the hammer back and looks through the empty barrel - a feat that is impossible with a type of pistols belonging to the period (be it a wheellock, doglock or even a snaplock/-haunce). James also learns to fight with an epee - a type of sword that appeared only long after the period (this, however, might be the author's somewhat ill-advised method of differentiating between the heavier rapier and the type of light duelling sword used by nobility and city folk). Another error is the use of a "sextet" for navigation - whether this refers to a sextant or some other piece of navigation equipment, it is out of time in this early era of the Age of Sail. A backstaff or a quadrant would be more suitable for the period.

Towards the end of the novel, there are some additional annoyances and scenes that make you roll your eyes. One of these is a sex scene where the author has probably researched some bad online sex fiction and therefore writes sentences like: "She shifted herself downward gently until she found that wonderful warm scepter that was the ultra-him". The last word/concept especially clashes both with the period and any sense of a romantic sex scene, turning the entire thing into something of a parody. Overall, the chapter in the book - that this scene is a part of - is the low point in the novel, showing that romance is not the author's strong area. Luckily, it doesn't last forever, and James soon takes to seas again.

The Brethren Prince has its weaknesses, but if you can turn a blind eye to them, there is a lot there to enjoy as well. It is definitely one of the better modern pirate novels that I've read, especially because of its attempt to actually describe the era in more detail than the usual tropes of the genre.