That said, this is a book about pirates. There are, just to clear this up, a lot of things happening out on open water. Some of those things are murder, looting and, well, basically piracy. The world evokes our own age of pirates, in a way – as independent captians slip in and out of an archipelago, preying on shipping, taking what they want and bloodily murdering (or not) the crews of the ships that they capture. Some of those pirates inspire terror – the cold, vicious Tanner Black rules the islands with an iron fist, and a tightly focused brutality. Others are flagrantly self-interested, but charismatic and successful enough to carry their people along with them, like Drake Morass. Morass also has other ambitions – to shape the pirate isles into something more: a kingdom. This is the age of pirates in decline, as national navies get organised, and start breaking the tide of criminality which saps trade. It’s a complicated time, to be sure – and one we’re given a close up view of here, as various pirate crews attempt to deal with their increasing irrelevance in the larger world, as well as the more personal concerns for treasure and independence.
Morass is a good example. If not amoral, he’s still a man prepared to kill to achieve his goals.Quite what they are is a little amorphous, apart from the desire to take power over the pirate isles. Quite why he wants to do this, apart from for the sake of it, is a bit unclear. There are allusions to his longer term goals, and past events, and I suspect if I’d read the series prior to this one it might have been a bit clearer. On the other hand, Morass works just as he is. If his long term goals are nebulous, his methods are a fine line between compassionate and ruthless; he has an easy charm and charisma which leaps off the page, and a utilitarian view of people which leaves him feeling a little cold. In a similar vein, his penchant for trying to exercise his libido is entirely plausible from a narrative point of view, but leaves him with the equivalent of an oily sheen over his character.
That said, Morass is surrounded by an ensemble cast whose unifying trait is their refusal to buy into his myth. There’s the female witchhunter, attached to Morass if not unwillingly, certainly begrudgingly. Watching her kick arse and meet his lumbering advances with a swift quip and (occasionally) a swift kick is an absolute delight. Frankly, I’d read a book with her as the main character quite happily. That she has a few semi-magical abilities of her own is icing on the cake – horrifying as they may be.
Morass is backed up by others, of course – including more moral captains, struggling with their own desires. One of them is Keelin Stillwater, who seems determined to be as nice as you can whilst also taking other people’s ships and burning them to the waterline for a living. Both Morass and Stillwater are struggling with their own inner demons, and their entanglements with other parts of the buccaneering community. They’re both fast talking leaders of men, larger than life, with a weight that you can feel even when turning the page. I would like to have The naval warfare more of their emotional journeys, but I suppose that would have cut into the pirating, plotting, and general mayhem.
Speaking of which, Hayes has really captured the essence of the buccaneering lifestyle. There’s a lot of complaints about grog, but there’s also some fast-paced, high impact battles, single combat and ship-to-ship. There is, to be honest, blood everywhere. Also treasure. But it’s wrapped around the personal stories of the characters, and those characters are, if not lovely people, certainly plausible in their pragmatism. This isn’t a story for heroes, but it is one of blood, gold, sailing ships, magic and cannon.
If that sounds like something that would appeal, I’d suggest giving this one a shot. I’ll certainly be reading the sequel!