Originally published on That's All She Reads
Imagine a novel about life on a tall ship during the age of the corsairs, privateers and pirates written by someone who has sailed as part of the crew of such a ship. That is exactly what you have with the Pirates of the Narrow Seas series. I don't see how you could be more thoroughly immersed in the time and the reality of such a life. The author, M. Kei, knows not only the terminology but has faced many of the challenges and dangers his characters do. The result is exciting, captivating, rich and authentic.
In the first book of the series, The Sallee Rovers, we meet Royal Navy Lieutenant Peter Thornton who is just happy to have gotten a position on a ship so soon after his unexpected promotion. Joy of joys, his best friend, Roger Perry, will be one of the other lieutenants aboard the HMS Ajax. Peter is in love with Roger, but it is not until they are aboard the Ajax that Peter, who can be rather impulsive, informs Roger of his feelings. He is rebuffed but not cruelly. His real trouble is that the inept captain of the Ajax doesn't like him, for no apparent reason than he doesn't like Peter's vibes. Roger tells Peter it's his lack of social skills but nothing Peter does makes the captain happy. When the Ajax comes upon a Spanish galley that is sinking, Peter insists he will not leave the stricken craft unless the galley slaves are freed from their chains. The Ajax leaves the slaves, Peter and two other crew members to drown. One of the freed slaves is a striking North African man called Captain Tangle by the British. He is dying of galley fever, but with Peter's help he manages to get the galley to shore and regains his health. In the meantime Peter learns that Tangel is an important man in his Sallee Republic and a legendary corsair. he also learns that Tangle wants what Roger did not: Peter. Through a series of events Peter winds up remaining with Tangle, being forced to choose where his loyalties will lie, and confused from day to day about his choices.
This novel is first and foremost an action-packed swashbuckler of the Captain Blood tradition. The sailing scenes, the battle scenes, all of it is taut, fast paced and engrossing. The characters both large and small are well drawn, individual, and appealing in their individual ways. The author calls The Sallee Rovers a period novel as opposed to a historical novel, the distinction being that Kei is not attempting to retell historical events or portray historical people but rather to offer an original slice of a sort of general 17th-18th century pirate story. Never has a period novel felt so historical, thanks to the technical and historical detail Kei brings to it.
Peter is quite a complex character. He seems rarely certain of anything, but that is because he has conflicting passions, not because he is indecisive, and he has to guard those conflicts and not share them. Though a central part of the novel is a gay love story, this is not at all a gay novel any more than most novels are "heterosexual novels". The fact that Peter is gay means he has lots more conflict, between religion and his sexual preference, between risking hanging for sodomy if he remains with the Ajax,and with whether he wants to pursue the relationship with Tangle, a man who though he prefers men, is very much in love with and involved with his wife. For Peter it needs to be more than a sexual relationship. For Tangle it already is in spite of his multiple partners. He tells Peter, "You complete me."
Peter is the sort of character who leaves the reader feeling as ambivalent and anxious as he does. That is the hallmark of a well-understood and well-written character. His emotions and your own about him are indistinguishable.
The faults I found were rather trivial. I have to admit that though the details regarding the ships and so forth were amazing, I found the intricate descriptions of clothing tiresome. Fortunately they are short and not too many, and admittedly that is a personal issue for me. The novel ends quite abruptly, but with the promise that the next novel in the series will take the story the next step.
One thing I dearly hope is that readers will not ghettoize novels like The Sallee Rovers because the protagonist is gay. If they do, they, like certain men who will not read a novel or see a film about a woman, are erecting an artificial barrier to enjoyment of a ripping good yarn. If I did not have a couple dozen other books to read next, I would be right on to Volume 2, Men of Honor.
Description of: The Sallee Rovers