Saturday, March 05, 2011


By Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini’s most famous tale of piracy at sea is, of course, Captain Blood, with The Sea Hawk coming in a distant second. Though it got enough attention in the ‘20s to result in a Hollywood movie based on the novel, it isn’t so well remembered today. That’s perhaps odd given the resurgence in interest in piracy that began in the ‘90s. All of which is beside the point.

The Sea Hawk tells of Sir Oliver Tresillian, a Cornish gentleman privateer in the days of Good Queen Bess. The first third of the novel follows his love for Rosamund Godolphin and his feud with her brother Peter and how same brought about Sir Oliver’s downfall. The rest of the tale follows Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea Hawk and the deadliest corsair captain as ever shipped out from the Barbary Coast. I’m not giving away too much if I let slip that same is Sir Oliver, now turned Islamic Fundamentalist privateer. Suffice to say a lot of scores are settled. Sark-el-Bahr/Sir Oliver displays a mercurial temper as he switches from bloody-minded vengeance to remorse. Overall he comes off as a man in the mold of Captain Blood, one who has been wronged and seeks revenge, but fears he has gone too far.

I have mixed feelings about Sabatini as a stylist. He is too prolix and big blocks of exposition clutter that landscape like decorated boulders, fancy but not much use. On the other hand, Sabatini had a way with dialog, his characters speak a version of Elizabethan English that is archaic, yet modern enough to move and express feeling and color. That’s a pretty good trick to steer between the Scylla of Ye Olde Englishe and the Charibdis of making everybody sound like they’re from SoCal (or Essex, as the case may be).

If you want a shot of piracy on the high seas, exotic locales, and swashbuckling action, The Sea Hawk won’t let you down.
-Dave Hardy

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