Review: The Pirate Queen

The Pirate Queen: A Novel by Alan Gold.

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..."
Grace O'Malley addressing her crew
The Pirate Queen
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
"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."
Elizabeth I, Tilbury, 1588
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.

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
358 pages
ISBN: 0-451-21744-6 (trade pbk.)
Publisher: Penguin Group
Date: 2006


  1. Ouch. Don't think I'll be reading this one. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. I'm thinking we should create a Shelf of Shame. This one really, really was bad. I had a request for it on Book Mooch and I almost feel bad even sending it to the poor guy!

  3. This reminds me that I tried to read another book by him about Boudicca (I can't remember the name of it off hand) and couldn't get past about 50 pages or so it was so bad.

  4. Oy--thanks for the warning. I'll stay away.

  5. hey, I kinda like that Shelf of Shame idea--how would that work?

  6. Are you thinking of "Warrior Queen," Daphne? Arghhhhhh, because believe it or not, I bought both "Pirate Queen" and "Warrior Queen" together. I was even going to give "Warrior Queen" a shot, but I think you just confirmed my worst fears!

  7. Jena, I'm thinking we could set up a separate page?? I've been building some new pages quietly in the background anyway, what would one more hurt?

    Oh, and maybe we should have a bunch of different review blogs participate?? That would be way more interesting than the occasional snotty review I put up. Any suggestions? What do you all think?

  8. Yep, that's it Michele (Warrior Queen). When I started reading historical fiction, it was probably the 3rd or 4th book I read. I'm glad it didn't make me give up on the genre!!

    I think the Shelf of Shame is a cool idea.

  9. Oh I am so glad this book didn't deter you from reading more historical fiction, Daphne. That would have been such a shame.

    I'm thinking we'll reveal a new Shelf of Shame this week and everyone can contribute their "Shame on You" reviews. :)

  10. That is one funny review - good job!

    I like the Shelf of Shame!


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