Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fast Ships, Black Sails (and stuff)

It would have been great if I'd finished reading this in time for "Talk like a Pirate Day," but alas it was not to be. Since starting this work/school schedule, I've dropped from reading 4-6 books a month to only finishing 2. And I'm writing even less. It appears that for this semester at least, actual writing has been displaced by doing stuff with the fencing community. Then I'm working full-time, plus an extra 6-7 hours a week to make up for time spent in class, then 5-10 hours a week on the homework... anyway, it's a very stressful semester. Next semester should be better--the class I'll be taking will have just as much homework, but it will be offered in the evening instead of the afternoon. I'll be able to work normal instead of extended hours, and I expect life to be quite improved. And someday I'll be finished with my Masters altogether! (ETA Winter 2010) I can hardly conceive of all the free time I'll have then... but I dare to dream.

But what about the book? This anthology is a lot of fun, opening with delightful stories by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Rhys Huges, and Kage Baker. One thing I found most interesting about this compilation is how it lays out so many tropes associated with the pirate tale sub-genre. "Boojum" by Bear & Monette takes on the ship who cares for her crew (here with a literally sentient ship swimming in the vastness of space). Baker's "I Begyn As I Mean to Go On" takes on tales of hidden treasure, curses of the dead and terrifying islands and islanders. She also focuses on the historical and religious context of the pirate tale--particularly the Catholic faith of the Spanish traders, sailors and missionaries involved in the Atlantic of the time of piracy's romantic peak--themes that other authors in the collection also utilize. Howard Waldrop's "Avast, Abaft!" runs a bunch of stock tropes together in a literal mash-up involving the HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance and Dick Deadeye, amongst others. Kelly Barnhill's story involves the lure of sea, and people for whom saltwater flows in their veins--such people cannot be kept shorebound. Justin Howe's "Skillet and Saber" aims a ship's boy towards violence and cannibalism. Conrad Williams' "68 07' 15" N, 31 36' 44" W" portrays monomaniacal obsession.

In another sf take on the take, "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow looks at piracy, either maritime or cybernetic, as freedom. Also on the sf side, David Freer and Eric Flint's "Pirates of the Suara Sea" shows us how ships that are the prey of pirates can turn the tables, even on alien seas. The final sf offering, Jayme Lynn Blaschke's "The Whale Below" shows how even the most straight-forward plunder can go horribly wrong when the deckhands take things into their own hands.

Brendan Connell's "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" deals with colonialist relationships with non-European islanders. Offering an alternate-history twist, "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger gives us the cat-and-mouse game of national navy vs. pirate in a 16th century where the "little ice age" instead froze the very seas. (We'll not inquire as to how any of the surviving population found food.) Naomi Novik, counterintuitively not writing in her Master-and-Commander-with-dragons universe, takes on the kidnapped-aristocrat trope and the woman-going-to-sea-disguised-as-a-man trope all in one go in the enjoyable "Araminta, or, the Wreck of the Amphidrake." Closing the book on a strong note, Garth Nix's creations Mr. Fitz and Sir Hereward plot a course (sorry, couldn't help myself) for the (almost)-impossible-to-reach-bastion and creatures from the abyss in "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe."

And for flat-out over-the-top fun, I will mention my favorite of the anthology, located right near the front: Rhys Hughes' "Castor on Troubled Waters," one of the tallest of tall tales I have ever had the pleasure to read.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few stories that didn't work for me. Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana" seems to be absurdist humor in the vein of W. E. Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle. That would be fine--I for one love Bowman's comic novel--except that in "Iguana's" case things seems to simply drag on too long. Chalk this up to senses of humor being notoriously individual; I imagine a lot of people will find it hilarious, but I ended up skipping to the next story after a few pages. I also found "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock to be a weak offering, but that is probably because I have not yet found my way into his "Eternal Champion" universe, of which this three page vignette appears to be part. I imagine that people better versed with Moorcock will find it more enlightening.

However, as a whole I found the stories here both fun to read and thought-provoking. I had never before reflected on the richness contained within the microcosm of pirate's tales until the amazing variety of the stories here drew it to my attention. Bravo to the authors and editors!


Rhys Hughes said...

I know this is a bit cheeky of me, so apologies in advance! But as you seemed to enjoy my 'Castor Jenkins' story in this anthology, I thought I might be allowed to point out that all the other 'Castor Jenkins' stories can be found in this book:

Also there's an audio version of 'Castor on Troubled Waters' here:
First Castor Story

Karen Burnham said...

Not at all, thanks for dropping by!

I'll try to look that one up--I was wondering if Castor had a continuing life or if he were a one-off.