I started to read this and I thought it was serendipity.
I’m a West Country 17th-century historian. The book begins in 17th century Devon, where young Lizbet, a fisherman’s daughter, is sent on an errand by her mother. It’s set in places I know, and clearly, so does Sheila Dalton, because I recognise them from her writing!
While she is away pirates raid the village and capture or murder all the inhabitants, and there begin Lizbet’s adventures, as she tries to pursue the pirates and free her beloved parents.
At first, in the early part of the book, when Lizbet is held willing captive by an enigmatic French privateer, I thought that the book was going to take a traditional romantic turn – lush erotic fiction reminding me of a less graphic version of Anne Rice’s “Beauty” series.
And then I was surprised.
And after that, when Lizbet achieves her goals, I expected the book to take another turn, that of the fierce woman-pirate, holding her own in a man’s world, fighting for her independence and taking on all comers.
And then I was surprised again.
I expected Lizbet to fall in love with her ungentlemanly pirate, and – maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t, but it’s not glorious technicolour high-seas swashbuckling heroic fantasy, and Gentleman Jake is no Errol Flynn.
I don’t envy the author trying to categorise this book, because it’s so complex and multi-layered: it’s not a romance, it’s not an adventure, it’s not a book about coming of age, but it’s something of all three and much more than the sum of its parts. The characters are so well-drawn and rounded that it’s impossible not to sympathise with characters even that you don’t necessarily like – or agree with – for instance Gentleman Jake’s defence of slavery is shocking to our modern sensibilities, but it’s so cogently argued that it’s impossible not to see a sympathetic logic to what he says. You might not agree with it, but he’s no leering caricature slave trader. Likewise, the controlling privateer Jean, who teaches Lizbet her first lessons in love, has the potential to be a deeply sinister and disturbing character, and instead is darkly alluring – but he’s not her hero. I think it’s a measure of the author’s skill that she has created a believable, fantastically detailed world peopled with characters so three-dimensional that they are able to say and do things that we as contemporary readers find disturbing, whilst remaining sympathetic. (Murder. Piracy. Slavery. That kind of thing. When I say pirates, we are not talking cuddly Jack Sparrow piracy here. We are talking grim, realistic, bloody vicious piracy, with no quarter given.)
It’s a world where heady romance and brutal realism rub shoulders, where men are definitely men, and women are equally expected to stand on their own two feet. It’s a very real and convincing world, where the author’s research is seamlessly incorporated into fiction, so convincing that you can almost taste sea-salt on board the ship and feel the blisters on your palms.
I loved it, and I cried at the end, because the thing that happens is almost what you want to happen and yet it’s not quite all of it. It’s got proper, awkward loving in it between real, awkward people – this is important to me, as a long-time loather of romances where only beautiful people find happiness – and yet it’s also got proper, awkward friendships between people who are afraid to be friends, and proper, developing relationships. The heroine who begins the adventure is a different woman to the one who ends it; she’s stronger, more self-reliant, yet at the same time she is not wholly triumphant. She has found serenity, but at a cost.
If you like Diana Norman, or Diana Gabaldon, or any other authors where the heroines are strong, stubborn, human, but ultimately realistic – you’ll love this book.