The OF Blog: Review of Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review of Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom

Avast ye mateys! Batten down yer hatches and raise the Jolly Roger, ye landlubbers!

Or some stupid shit like that. Despite reading and mostly enjoying Treasure Island as a kid, I never really have given a rat's ass about pirates, pirate lingo, or just anything really related to pirate adventures. Generally, things such as Talk Like a Pirate Day or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have left me feeling rather cold and disinterested. Too many clichés and never really anything in those stories and creations that make me care. I feel so claustrophobic at the thought of being trapped on a leaky ship for months at a time, with so little room to walk around, which might explain why I generally do not care for sea novels and especially for the pirate stereotypes that seem to abound in such tales.

So when I learned that Gene Wolfe's latest novel would be called Pirate Freedom, I could not help but to feel some trepidation, despite Wolfe's penchant for taking the most tired of clichés (such as the young boy/Quest story that he deconstructed in his The Wizard-Knight duology) and tweaking them and then skewering them with unreliable narrators and ambiguous chronologies. But after finishing Pirate Freedom, I found that fear to be mostly misplaced.

Pirate Freedom contains many different elements somehow fused into a coherent narrative. From a time-travel episode that is never explained to an adjustment to life at sea in a different time to a stormy romance to some questions of identity, this novel contains so many elements that a reader of Wolfe's previous works would come to expect in a novel of his. But this may be more of a double-edged sword than the cutlasses employed by several characters in the novel.

Father Christopher is the narrator of this story. Writing after the fact, he tells of his youth in passing (his family's "business" becomes ever more murky as the story progresses and he reveals certain things his father has taught him), how he became a monastic novice in Cuba, and how one day he walks out with a priest and leaves the early 21st century for the 17th Caribbean world. Readers of Wolfe's previous novels this decade, especially the two Able novels that comprise The Wizard-Knight, cannot help but to think that this unexplained time travel covers up something else that is transpiring under the surface.

The 17th century world that young Crisofóro (as he's often called by the people around him) is not the monolingual one so often presented in naval/pirate adventure stories. Wolfe does an excellent job of recreating the feel of a multilingual Caribbean world, where a patois of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and West African languages and cultures were merging to create societies that operated on the fringes of European colonial rule. Christopher's experiences with domestics, traders, buccaneers, and eventually with pirates in some ways one of the most "true" of historical stories set in this milieu that I have encountered yet.

But yet there are those lacunae which Wolfe uses so often in his stories. How exactly did Christopher rise to become a captain? Just who are these people around him, particularly that one person in the city of Veracruz? What is Christopher leaving out and what is he outright lying about? These questions arise during the course of the novel and they create tensions that allow for the ending to be a powerful one.

The story here was very good and the conclusions, nebulous and as twisting as an Ouroboros, ought to leave the reader dwelling on the possible implications of the story and what was missed the first time through. For those unfamiliar with Wolfe's writing and modus operandi, this might be one of the more refreshing and challenging books that they have read. But for those of us such as myself who have read dozens of Wolfe's novels and short fiction, the good qualities of Pirate Freedom are tempered by an awareness that so many plot devices have been recycled from Wolfe's prior novels.

From the now almost-predictable use of the unreliable first-person narrator to how close Christopher's motivations and speech patterns mirror those of Able (and to a lesser extent, Latro), the astute reader familiar with Wolfe's other works might find him or herself predicting (as I did on occasion), "Ah, I suspect that we'll learn that ____________ is not who he/she is, but instead will be ________________." While on occasion my predictions were wrong, too often they were too close to being correct for me to feel the full wonder of this tale that I might have experienced if I had not been so familiar with Wolfe's previous works. However, while this detracts only a little bit from my overall enjoyment of the story, it does lead me to rank this just a little bit lower than Wolfe's Soldier novels and a tad higher than his The Wizard-Knight series. Highly recommended for readers, but with a caveat to those well-read in Wolfe's writings not to expect more than just more of the same.

Publication Date: November 13, 2007 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Tor


Unknown said...

Thanks for the review Larry! Unlike yourself I've enjoyed the recent focus on pirates (POTC etc.). While I own Book of the New Sun I had read (from yourself and others) that it's easier to ease in to it, and the other day I saw The Knight at a local second hand bookstore and figured that'd break my Wolfe virginity, but now pirates are threatening the poor Knight's status.
Although, this is a stand-alone right? If I read The Knight I'd be compelled to read The Wizard, so maybe this be the way t'go. Yarrrr!

Lsrry said...

This is, far as I can tell, a standalone, although there is a little "loop" at the end that would allow Wolfe to write a sequel if he wanted. But the action and development seem to be indicative of a standalone rather than a duology or series.

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