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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tim Severin’s pirates

The PIRATE series, the adventures of Hector Lynch

Tim Severin, explorer, film-maker and lecturer, has made many expeditions, from crossing the Atlantic in a medieval leather boat, to going out in search of Moby Dick. He has written marvelous nonfiction accounts of all these expeditions, most of which I have in my collection.

My personal favorites are Crusader, The Spice Island Voyage, and In Search of Moby Dick. This is because I have personally visited the exotic lands described in these books, and always thrill to the acute sense of being there that Severin conveys. But don’t just read those three – all of these travel accounts are well worth the time and effort.

It is no surprise that they have won many awards, including the Thomas Cook Travel Award, the Book of the Sea Award, a Christopher Prize, and the literary medal of the Academie de la Marine. It was a surprise to me, however, that Tim Severin should launch himself into fiction.

The pirate books – Corsair, Buccaneer, Sea Robber – are the first Severin novels I have read. There was a Viking series – Odin’s Child, Sworn Brother, King’s Man – that sold very well, but somehow the set passed me by. Therefore, I was not sure what to expect.

The novels, I found, are picaresque – travel stories without much plot, in which the protagonist goes to exotic places, and has things happen to him. The hero is captured from an Irish village as a teenager, becomes a slave in barbarous Barbary, and progresses from there to pulling a sweep in a French galley, and so on through books two and three to life as a pirate in various guises, often under captains with famous names. It is all stirring stuff, its only drawback being that, l ike Don Quixote, Hector Lynch never seems to be in charge of his own fate, which tends to make him rather colorless.

But I did find the same wonderful background scenes that mark Severin’s travel books, along with the sense of veracity that can only be achieved by a writer who knows the sea intimately, in all its moods. Another plus is Severin’s painstaking research into pirates of various kinds. I thought I knew a lot about the history of piracy before I started the series, but I learned a great deal more. These books will not be given away – I will be keeping them as valued textbooks, to be looked up whenever I want to check details of piracy in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, the Pacific Ocean, and the East Indies.

Despite the lack of compelling plots I recommend this series to anyone interested in the history of piracy, and who would like to know how it felt to sail in those seas in those days. But what I am really looking forward to is Tim Severin’s next exotic adventure, and the wonderful book he will write about it.

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