rating: 1/2 of 5 stars
Book Origination: Purchased at local used-book store
Oh dear. No, really...I mean it. Have you ever run across a novel where you genuinely wondered how it made it to the printing press? Was the editor on vacation that week? Did the publisher call in sick that day? More important, was the author actually paid money for this? How, how, how did this happen?
Last Friday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day (we Americans are so cute this way) and in honor of that, I decided to pull out the novel The Pirate Queen: A Novel, by Alan Gold from the Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa that is my reading pile (no matter that it was at the bottom of the stack and the resultant crash of books could be heard a block away). Never being one to let horrid cover design stop me from reading, I had picked up the book a few weeks ago on a recommendation from the Amazon Historical Fiction Forum....I'll deal with that person later.
The Pirate Queen is ostensibly a novel about Grace O'Malley, an Irish pirate who bedeviled Queen Elizabeth I during her day. The story follows Grace from her childhood on the coast of Ireland, where she was raised sailing upon her father's ships, through adulthood when she became one of the more successful pirates - she commanded a large fleet of ships - of her time. She led fighting men on both land and sea, married twice, and harassed the English merchant trade to the immense chagrin of Queen Elizabeth. Ultimately, Grace ended up meeting with Elizabeth in person and the two strong women reached their own understanding. Truly, her life is a veritable treasure trove for the historical fiction writer. Unfortunately, it did not come together well in this novel.
Character development in the novel is non-existent. For example, Grace's first husband, Donal O'Flaherty, is so one-dimensional it's slightly comical. After an entire year of beating and raping Grace at will, he suddenly becomes loving and docile in the span of two short pages and for no apparent reason. Twenty pages later, however, Donal abruptly appears again and the character has reverted to his evil self again, as if the author forgot his earlier passage.
The reader is offered either simplistic motivations or none at all for Grace's intimate relationships aside from her desire for sex. Her daughter, Margaret, one of the three children history tells us she produced with her first husband Donal, is portrayed as the result of Grace's rather explicit liaison with a Turkish sea captain she captured and held as a "sex-slave" of sorts. The novel describes Grace giving birth to Margaret at sea, while according to legend, it was her son Theobald, a product of Grace's second marriage, who was born at sea. Historical inconsistencies with no author explanation abound throughout the book and listing them all here might take days. Literally.
The dialogue throughout the story is stilted, almost juvenile in manner. All the female characters, including Queen Elizabeth, are crude and crass to the point of embarrassment.
For some unknown reason, characters seem to verbalize everything by screaming and hardly a page goes by without some character emoting their dialogue in this manner. Rarely do they "shout," "cry out," "rage," "yell," or even "fume." Instead, we read passages such as
"'WHAT!' she screamed." Followed two sentences later by "'The f****** Mac Mahons dare to visit my lands!' she screamed at him." No character seems to have escaped from the screaming thing and I feel quite deaf from reading it all.
But perhaps what I found most unforgivable was what I'll call historical plagiarism: attributing the recorded and known words of one personage in history to another.
"Yes, I may only have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and mind of a sea captain..."Those of you who are familiar with Tudor history will immediately recognize this quote as Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech, when she is recorded as saying
Grace O'Malley addressing her crew
The Pirate Queen
"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too."Evidently, the author couldn't come up with any original words to give his poor heroine and it is at this point that the novel loses all integrity.
Elizabeth I, Tilbury, 1588
Reading historical fiction is always a bit tricky. The liberties an author takes (after all, it is fiction) may, with exceptional writing, be forgiven. In the case of The Pirate Queen, however, the reader is assaulted with both poor writing and grave historical inaccuracies. I could not in good conscious recommend this book to anyone whose friendship I value.
For those interested in Grace's fantastical life, I would steer them towards either the definitive non-fiction biography, Granuaile, Ireland's Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers or the superior work of Pirate Queen, by Morgan Llywelyn.
By the way, look for a feature film about Grace to appear in 2009...I expect we'll be hearing a lot more about this forgotten Irish pirate in the near future.
Title: The Pirate Queen
Author: Alan Gold
ISBN: 0-451-21744-6 (trade pbk.)
Publisher: Penguin Group