Gene Wolfe,
Pirate Freedom
(Tor, 2010)

It works perfectly well as a straightforward pirate yarn.

But science fiction/fantasy writer Gene Wolfe is rarely content with the straightforward approach. In Pirate Freedom, the young pirate captain Christopher's adventures include boyhood service in a Cuban monastery in modern times and tenure as a priest in mid-20th century New Jersey. Without explanation, Chris slips through time.

Even without these added elements, Pirate Freedom would come with a high recommendation. Wolfe has meticulously researched his subject, giving Christopher's second life in the 18th century the authentic ring of historical fiction. The tale swiftly carries Chris from a dismal life of petty thievery in the Havana marketplace through a brief berth as a common sailor to a post as captain of a ship in a rapacious pirate fleet. The story is told through a conversational narrative, a letter and confession written in modern times to an unnamed recipient, recounting the various events in his rise to infamy. (The narrative technique has been used quite successfully by Wolfe in past novels.) This allows Wolfe to circumvent some of the drier details, but at times it gives the story a rushed or staggered feeling.

It's a brilliant story, one I thoroughly enjoyed and regretted finishing. However, the lack of detail is sometimes frustrating. For instance, Wolfe rarely describes for readers the exotic settings in which Chris finds himself and, while the author clearly has a workman's knowledge of ships, he never delves very far into the life of a sailor. He creates here some formidable characters, too, but I never even got much sense of their appearance (beyond a mention of physical size). I also found myself wishing that things didn't come quite so easily to Chris along the way -- and that maybe Wolfe would introduce one female character who didn't immediately fall in love or lust with our hero.

I suppose it's OK to leave the explanation for Christopher's initial slip back in time -- as well as his later jump forward, to a point some years before he left -- a mystery, but I would really love to know Wolfe's reasoning. The big "twist" at the end feels a trifle contrived. On the other hand, Wolfe's use of modern jargon in ancient times is an entertaining effect. Also, the priest's own view of his actions as a pirate provide a fascinating moral quandary; it's not always clear if Chris is begging for forgiveness or simply bragging.

There are plenty of weaknesses here -- more than one might expect from a writer of Wolfe's stature -- but Pirate Freedom remains an entertaining reading experience. Nautical fiction enthusiasts will enjoy it at its most basic level, and Wolfe fans will no doubt relish the opportunity to pick it apart looking for hidden allegories.

book review by
Tom Knapp

2 October 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new