Monday, August 21, 2006

By George MacDonald Fraser

George Macdonald Fraser has made a career of deconstructing classic genre fiction. The Flashman series is part homage, part parody, part mutation. The Pyrates carries the parody even further, this time instead of exploring every nook of the Victorian Empire, Fraser takes a run at the swashbuckling tales of Jeffery Farnol, Rafael Sabatini, Captain Johnson, Michael Curtiz, and dozens of others. The Flashman novels have footnotes, this one has a bibliography!

The tale follows Colonel Thomas Blood, who’d be a rakehell rapscallion, if only his luck would turn for just a minute. Alas, he is doomed to be overshadowed by handsome Ben Avery, the handsomest man in the Royal Navy. Avery is charged with delivering the Crown of Madagascar tot he ruler of that strategic nation (that is, an insect plagued bit of swamp the French happen to covet). Ben can’t help it if every damsel he passes falls violently, madly, obsessively in love with him. The only hitch is that the International Brotherhood of Pirates under their ferocious shop-steward Calico Jack Rackham are out to seize the crown, rescue their comrade Black Sheba (who is panting with lust for Avery) and save up for retirement. Complicating affairs is the disgusting Don Lardo, a villain of Sydney Greenstreet proportions and the Marquis de Sade’s predilections. Will the pirates and the Royal Navy put aside their animosity to unite against the real foe; Spaniards in possession of portable wealth? Pretty much, yeah.

For the record, Fraser’s hero Colonel Blood is NOT a knock-off of Sabatini’s Captain Blood. Rather he is a fictionalization of the real Col. Blood, an noted Irish schemer who was something of a one-man crime-wave. When he wasn’t plotting to overthrow the monarchy (or restore it, Blood’s politics were a bit murky), he was apt to do a bit of looting. Blood actually directed the heist of the century: he stole the Crown Jewels. Though he was immediately caught, Blood also managed a reversal that would have made O.J. envious. Blood was sentenced to a slow painful death (a seventeenth century specialty). But after being granted and interview His Majesty the King, Blood got a pardon and a Royal handshake. I guess the whole “sentenced to death thing” was just one of those wacky misunderstandings…

The Pyrates is a jolly romp through the cliches of the pirate tales of yore. Sometimes the humor gets a bit repetitious, but then there are gems like a description of a determined pirate chief as a man who, in modern times, would make a good Paratroop sergeant or a moderate Labour MP. Mr. Blair, take note.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, August 14, 2006

By William C. Davis

There have been many biographies of Jean Laffite, mostly they are romanticized evocations of an era when New Orleans dripped with Spanish Moss and scoundrels. Hot-blooded Creole gentlemen met with swords under the Dueling Oaks to determine who would win the favors of languid octaroon mistresses.

While octaroon mistresses do figure prominently in William Davis’ tale of the Big Easy’s best-known outlaws, Davis takes a flinty eye to the antics of the last great corsair.

First off, while Jean has had the spotlight pretty much to himself for 200 years, this is the story of the Laffite brothers. While Jean was the public face, older brother Pierre was a dedicated and skilled back-room schemer who complemented Jean’s drive and energy with meticulous planning and political chicanery.

Davis traces the pair to the south of France and finds some evidence that they relocated to the Caribbean in the early years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. As opportunities for wealth and plunder closed down with the fall of France’s West Indian empire, the Laffites moved on to New Orleans.

At the time huge profits could be made by smuggling. Smugglers brought in everything from slaves, to ordinary goods, to loot captured by corsairs operating in the name of Spain’s rebellious colonies.

Evading customs duties was a major occupation for many New Orleans residents. The city was the major port for legitimate trade, and pretty much the major one for smuggling as well. The Laffites were able to act as honest brokers for the smugglers. They made sure debts were paid and the right palms were greased. They had a number of bases, their best known was Barataria. It was an island in the Mississippi delta, accessible only by shallow draft vessels, and only by one who knew the maze-like waterways. It was also reasonably near the customers in New Orleans. The Laffites had many scams for bringing in goods, including a magnificent use of legal loopholes that allowed them to inform on their own contraband, collect a reward for turning it in, and then sell the goods legally. Davis documents the Laffites’ rise to power with liberal use of court documents, newspaper stories, and government reports. Federal authorities had quite a bit to say about the Laffites.

In a remarkable turn of fortune, just when the Laffites’ fortunes were at their lowest, they turned them around by heroic service at the Battle of New Orleans. Davis tells the story with a twist, he shows just how the Laffites were masters at promising little while asking for a lot. Both the Federal authorities and the British courted the Laffites. Davis suggests their choice to join General Jackson was based less on patriotism than the fact that the Brits saw through the Laffites!

As Spain’s empire crumbled, many in the United States looked on greedily. Davis shows how the Laffites installed themselves at the nexus of patriots, schemers, spies, and expansionists who hoped to profit from the destruction of the Spanish empire. Davis also accessed the correspondence of Spain’s spies in the region and details the Laffites’ most audacious coup of all. When it became clear that the half-baked plans for using secret armies of American mercs to overthrow the Spanish would never work, the Laffites quietly turned informer. In a double stroke they obtained a pass for their own activities in commerce raiding while ensuring a steady income from the Spanish secret service!

Davis follows the downward arc of the Laffites’ career too. Jean’s operations at Barataria came under heavy pressure so he moved to Galveston. There he often found himself in the position of rendering substantial material aid to the very plotters he was supposed to be squelching for Spain. Laffite’s motives seem to be a mixture of humanitarianism and a need to keep the stumblebums in the field so the Spanish would pay him.

Davis documents the grim end of the brothers. Pierre died in a small affray in the Yucatan, Jean in a sea-fight off Cuba. It was a dismal end for men who had once been the criminal masterminds of the Gulf Coast and subject of concern to kings and presidents.

There is a coda. Pierre’s descendents by his mixed race mistress sought to better themselves in segregated New Orleans by passing as white. Davis found the court documents that showed they were not “white” and, in a revealing twist, notes the disappearance of church records that would have proved them to be mixed race.

While The Pirates Laffite is not a fast paced book, it is one of great depth. Davis is meticulous in his study of the details of the Laffites and the milieu of corsairs, smugglers, and secret agents they moved in. Sometimes the barrage of facts is a bit overwhelming, but the clarity of the picture Davis builds is worth slogging through the details. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the Gulf Coast. It is also a monument in the literature of piracy and covert warfare.

New Orleans still drips with Spanish moss, criminals, and post-Katrina damp. The local outlaws are far more likely to ambush one another with bullets than to meet with swords. The era of Jean and Pierre Laffite seems quaint by contrast. Still, one wonders if they were here today, would they not quickly rise to the top?

-Dave Hardy

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Armadillo Con

I attended Armadillo Con this weekend. This is my second Armadillo Con and I enjoy it more every time. There were some fine panels on what's new in comics, ape movies, and space opera. That's just a sampling. I spent a fair bit of time loitering about the dealers room (much tothe detriment of my bank account, and the enrichment of my library)
Some of the high points were back-to-back panels on writing: how to finish your novel and the business of writing. I got some very good advice from John Moore, Bradley Denton (One Day Closer to Death, Blackburn &c.), Josh Rountree, and Katherine Kimbriel on the novel panel. A lot of it was commonsense, but it’s good to hear it from pros. Somehow stuff you already know sticks better when you hear it from another.

  • Ignore that internal editor. That is what revision is for. Just write NOW.
  • Try writing a synopsis to get unstuck. By telling the story completely, you may get a clue as to what it is really about
  • Have an outline (I always do).
  • Pick a “candy scene” and write that. There’s no law that says you have to write every part in order. Give yourself a reward and write the cool parts you really enjoy and come easily.
  • Stop before a finishing point. If you reach a climax, the next part begins lower, with less excitement. Stop a little before and preserve that momentum.

Mark Finn read from his Robert E. Howard biography, Blood and Thunder (due in November from Monkey Brains). I also sat in on a fine reading by Howard Waldrop (Howard Who?, Custer’s Last Jump, &c) from In Search of Tom Purdue. There was a sparklingly entertaining panel of Robert E. Howard featuring Finn, Waldrop, Joe Lansdale (Rumble Tumble, Captains Outrageous, The Bottoms, and many, many more), Chris Nakashima-Brown (Script Doctoring the Apocalypse), and Mikal Trimm.

The high point of the weekend was a spectacular performance of King Kong by the Violet Crown Radio Players. HOLY MOLEY! I never realized the original special effects film could translate so well into a live radio show. Well, it wasn’t actually on the radio, but performed as if it were… I was absolutely swept up in the moment. On stage I might see actors bellowing through plastic cones, but where it counts I was on Skull Island watching Kong battle a T Rex for his life!

Next up World Fantasy Con!

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Local History & More Piracy!

I live near Hornsby Bend in Travis county (that’s Texas y’all). It’s an area of farmland that is swiftly turning into tract housing and a bypass highway. It’s perhaps not surprising that people might assume that there is no history behind an area like this. It was a cow pasture, now it’s brick-faced, ranch style homes starting in the $80s.

But every place has its story. It turns out the Hornsby area has quite a few old stories, if you know where to look. Here’s an interesting website that I came across today. It has all kinds of history tidbits about Rueben Hornsby, the first settler to move into this part of Travis County back in the 1830s.

Back to reviews of pirate books!

By James L. Nelson

It seems that you can’t toss a brick these days without hitting some kind of pirate reference (especially in children’s books and tv), except in the world of fiction. James L. Nelson set out to change that with his “Brethren of the Coast” series.

The Blackbirder is actually the second novel in the set (The Guardship was first and The Pirate Round is the third). The protagonist is Thomas Marlowe, a reformed pirate turned merchant captain and Virginia planter. Marlowe has freed his slaves, an act that has aroused the hostility of his slave-owning neighbors. When one of Marlowe’s freedmen kills the captain of a slave ship and then heads out to sea, Marlowe must hunt the man down or see his own future blighted. Action at sea and intrigue on land ensues.

This is a decent action novel, but not top drawer. Nelson isn’t Rafael Sabatini. He makes some desultory efforts to use 18th century speech, though mostly he uses neutral 20th century American English. Nelson's descriptions of slave ships are gruesomely true to life. His observations on pirates and their ways sometimes seems heavy-handed, but reasonably accurate: they were admirably freedom-loving, but brutal in their disregard of the lives and property of others.

There are a lot of characters and subplots in this novel, and some of it works better than other parts. Marlowe is a good hard-boiled character, as is Madshaka, an escaped slave with some interesting plans of his own. I really wished the novel spent more time with Marlowe. Too much of the plot seems contrived, the admirable freed slave just happens to kill a scummy slaver captain. The bigoted neighbor just happens to have a dark secret. A pirate ally just happens to show up to help Marlowe’s wife save the day for the freed slaves, etc…

While I don’t want to sound too negative about The Blackbirder, it just didn’t grab me as strongly as other pirate yarns. The strong points for the novel are lots of action, some good characters, and an interesting look at race relations in the 18th century.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, August 07, 2006

This is the inagural post for my new Fire & Sword blog. Given the great speed with which I write my reviews (as some may note from my grammar, spelling, and punctuation) , a blog format is the easiest way to get my reviews online. A nifty feature is that blogs can be interactive (not so with locked down html on a private site).

Please feel free to visit my site at for lots of other reviews, links, and some examples of my fiction.

Since this is the summer of piracy, without further ado here is my review of the splendid pirate tale, The Golden Hawk.

By Frank Yerby

Although little remembered today, Frank Yerby was one of the last great writers of swashbuckling adventure novels. In The Golden Hawk he tackled the quintessential swashbuckler subject, piracy on the high seas.

Kit Gerardo is the dashing young man at the center of the novel. He serves under Captain Lazarus, a leper buccaneer, together they quell a mutiny, survive the Port Royal earthquake, battle a Spanish galleon, and rescue a beautiful girl who drives Lazarus to suicide and shoots Kit in the head. And that’s just the first chapter.

The rest of the novel pretty much keeps up the pace. Kit and his friend Bernardo lead the buccaneers of the Seaflower across the Caribbean in search of vengeance upon Don Luis del Toro, the Spanish grandee who had Kit’s mother tortured to death by the Inquisition. Kit is also in quest of Rouge, the fieriest she-pirate ever to sail the Main, she also has a score to settle with Don Luis. On the other hand Bianca, Don Luis’ bride, becomes acquainted with Kit and ensures the very complex relationship between Don Luis and Kit doesn’t get any simpler.

Yerby was too good a writer to make his tale just about good and evil, so he keeps his characters hopping to show that good and evil aren’t always so far apart. Yerby also adds in the details that give his tale a richness beyond the usual cutlasses and pieces-of-eight business. I’d never heard of Caviedes the Mad Poet of Lima before, but he’s one of the most interesting characters in the novel.

The Golden Hawk is a rousing tale of adventure with a distinctive cut to its jib. While tales like Captain Blood and Pirates of the Caribbean are well known, The Golden Hawk is realtively obscure. It’s a pity because the Hawk deserves to soar.
-Dave Hardy