Posted on September 21, 2009 by Filamena
Look, I was hooked on this collection of short stories from the minutes I saw the premise. Seriously, whose timbers don’t get shivered at the prospect of well written, thoughtful pirate fiction? Well, that’s what I was handed when I got my copy of Fast Ships Black Sails.
Ann and Jeff Vandermeer rounded up a deadly crew of writers a list of which kind of staggered me. Some of the names were familiar to me, some not so much, and a few of my favorite writers included. None of these varied authors disappointed or brought me anything less then fantastic pirate fiction. That makes it hard to talk about the collection, as I want to go on for pages about each story, but I’d probably lose you pretty quickly into that sort of dissertation so let me point out the two stories that really rocked my world.
All the stories in this collection are thick with language and details that really bring the feel of black sailed ships to life, to the point where I could smell the brine of the sea and feel of the wind. But of all the stories, Kelly Barnhill’s “Elegy for Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves,” left me shaking, crying more than a little bit, and cuddling my daughter. The story is set as if part of the records of library near the location where the events may or may not have taken place. The unnamed person making notes on the record implies directly that there is no truth to the story that follows, and yet from the time the story starts proper I wanted to believe every word. An old dying monk with lovely handwriting tells the story of a woman gifted with the ability to heal and bolster the forces of life itself and her equally saintly daughter.
It’s magical. A moral tale that takes the sort of wholesome goodness of a Disney Princess and puts her in a morally corrupt society rather then keep her distant from hate and slavery and the other realities of the colonial era. Here, Gabrielle, the saint-like child of a mystical healer and the monk telling the story takes her graceful magic and takes to the sea, turning pirate in order to thwart the French Governor in his totalitarian rule over the colony.
I knew from the beginning of the story that Gabrielle was going to be hung for piracy. Despite having the information Barhill’s words through the sad monk made me love her regadless so that though I knew a sad end was coming, I got brought along and couldn’t protect myself from it. As a writer, Barhill’s story is the sort that makes me want to write better, and read more.
Maybe it was a matter of timing then, that made the story immediately following Barhill’s sweet and sorrowful tale my other favorite. (Trust me, that’s hard to say, like choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream.) Justin Howe had the strange fortune of being the story I landed on just after my crying-fest. Feeling happily vulnerable, I wasn’t sure how anything could match the story before until I was hit by a line in “Skillet and Saber.” The narrator, a young man turned pirate says to the reader rather of matter of fact, “…and that’s how I began, the assistant to a legless pirate cook.”
Howe and his narrator had me there.
What followed from there was a grotesque tale of the realties of a pirate ship. Gross, and not a few steps from slavery or a prison, the narrator is never far from being raped or killed or both. Howe dances across the line between disgusting and delicious by describing the haunting tropical fragrances of exotic spices and rat droppings in the same breath. There were moments reading about the cooking on that pirate ship where I couldn’t tell if I was hungry or nauseous. Howe does a good job of hinting at a supernatural shadow over the story that might be perfectly explainable in a mundane way.
Oh, and did I mention a buccaneer fight with saber and skillet? Yeah, that alone was worth the purchase price of the collection.
And that’s just two of the collection. Look, I’m not saying you need to run right out and get yourself a copy of this collection except that I kind of am. If you like pirates, have a strong stomach, and really want your moneys worth out of swashbuckling fiction, damnit, why are you still reading this review when you could be reading the collection instead.
Review by Filamena