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Corsair by Tim Severin is a book set in the age of pirates in and around the Barbary coast, it starts off well but ultimately fizzles out.
The book is set in the 17th century and tells the story of an Irishman called Hector Lynch who along with his sister is taken by a raiding moorish party and transferred to Northern Africa. Hector is an educated young man whose staying at the village for a few days, this instantly places him into a different type of prisoner compared to his fellow villagers. Its fair to say that his Irishness is largely ignored from this point and the author makes the point at the end of the novel that the raid is based on a real event in 1550, I can only asssume for necessity that the main character in the novel had to be Irish.
So the point of the book?
Well firstly its to look for Hectors sister, thats the main focus for Hector and as you can guess this isn't resolved quickly. The other is a return to Britain/Ireland in which a chance comes up early but as with the sister is a story which will run.
Hector is a bit of an unlikely character, firstly he's an intelligent young man but also seems to have a skill for every situation. He's tall, good looking, quick with languages and intelligent. In truth he's everything you'd want for a hero set in the 17th century, however, he's a bit of a man out of time and is in reality a man from the 21st century living in the 17th century.
His sister Elizabeth - we don't meet her but she's mentioned through out.
Dan - A fellow prisoner befriended by Hector, he's English and very good with the pen, he tags along with Hector who finds him a place wherever they turn up.
Murat Reis - The corsair who took Hector, he's english but has turned Turk and become a muslim. He starts as the enemy but slowly becomes more of an enigma then a help to Hector. He's based on a real character.
Hector taken in Ireland is taken by the corsair, he turns Turk by becoming a muslim, is then shipwrecked, the taken another corsair and taken to Tangiers and is employed by the emperor Moulay.
The story moves very wuickly, indeed some might say a bit too quickly lots of things happen to Hector and everytime he manages to land on his feet and turn a bad situation into a positive. Hector is apparently brilliant at languages which makes wherever he ends up an easy explanation into how he ingrates into the society. Hector seems to have a relevent skill for whatever situtation he manages to land in, if they need a engineer he has the skills, if they need a gunpowder expert he has the skills, if they need a liguist he has the skills, if they need an architect he pushes Dan forward who has the skills etc etc. You get my drift.
So the story winds along, in truth it jumps a bit at times and you do wonder if Hector would ever think "It's been a funny old year" because every time he almost gets set suddenly thngs happen and he's whisked away into a new situation. Some of the things which happen to him are truly horrible, murder, mayhem, shipwrecks, turning into a Muslim (an eye wartering moment), threatened with torture, lashed with the cat, and basically going around the Barbary coast, East med in a state of constant terror. However, Hector takes it all in his stride and always ends up on top.
The political situation around that part of the world in the 17th century is a volatile one, England is starting to flex her muscles on the oceans around the world and starting to become the major world power away from the French and the Spanish. The threat of invasion from the Islamic Northern AFrica is a constant possibility but the internal differences between Tangiers, Marakesh and Algiers will mean that an Islamic empire will never quite happen in Southern Europe. This is the period of the brigand, pirate and buccaneer with plenty of skullduggery concerning the barely legal actions of the english brigands against the Spanish empire in South America.
All these things are going on and are mentioned but not really explored in depth in this book, in truth its a fairly standard pirate, brigand type novel featuring a lot of cliche based characters. The muslims are cast strictly as the enemy with their odd ways, the english as the middle way and the Irish as the trustworthy.
The novel does have a decent finish and of course leaves plenty of avenues for follow up novels in which Buccaneer is the next, will I be reading it? Probably but I think its an order from the library rather than buy from a bookshop.
Ever since Johnny Depp memorably took on the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, pirates have started to become fashionable again in the popular imagination. One of the many writers to jump aboard this particular bandwagon is Tim Severin with his 2007 novel "Corsair", which I recently read after enjoying his earlier "Viking" trilogy. Severin is an author of several historical non-fiction books as well as his more recent forays into fiction, and specialises in works of a nautical theme; as well as being a writer, Severin is also an explorer and traveller, and specialises in recreating historical journeys to test how accurate ancient documents, myths and oral tales really are. Notably, he has captained an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China to investigate the stories of Sinbad the Sailor, steered a bronze age boat like the one Jason and the Argonauts might have used, and sailed the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that Chinese mariners could have reached the Americas with similar technology. I found the "Viking" books were especially good because they allowed the author to use his specialised knowledge of historical sea-faring to have the main characters explore the Viking world by boat. A similar approach to this has been used - in my opinion, less successfully - in "Corsair", where the action takes place in the late seventeenth century and once again involves a lot of travelling by boat as a device for exploring historical themes and cultures.
Our hero in "Corsair" is Hector Lynch, who starts the novel as a 17 year old from fairly prosperous Protestant family in Ireland. After the death of his father, his Spanish Catholic mother sends Hector and his sister Elizabeth to the west coast of the country to be educated in a small monastery while they board in a nearby village. However, one night the village is raided by a band of Barbary pirates who kidnap every able-bodied villager, including Hector and his sister, in an explosive start to the novel. After being knocked unconscious in his struggles with the corsairs, Hector wakes to find himself in the hold of their ship, manacled and separated from his sister (who has been locked up with the other women captured aboard a second ship), and sailing for North Africa. Hector, for all his education and prosperous background, becomes a slave in Algiers with little prospect of being ransomed. Life in the slave compound is brutal, and in order to improve his conditions for what appears to be a long-term incarceration, Hector and his new fiend Dan (a slave originally from the Caribees) decide to "turn Turk" and become Muslims like their captors. Any reader of Severin's other novels won't expect things to stay like this for long, though; in the "Viking" world, things never remained settled for our hero for more than a few chapters at a time, and there was constant fast-paced change, and new locations and characters to get to know. Likewise, Hector finds himself shifted around from one culture and location to another throughout the novel, collecting a strange band of friends along the way.
The first thing to point out is that the premise of this book isn't perhaps as outlandish as it might seem. In 1631, a particularly brazen Barbary corsair operating from the Atlantic coast of Morocco made a surprise raid on the Irish coastal village of Baltimore. This corsair, a sea captain from Flanders who had "turned Turk" and taken the name Murat Reis, successfully kidnapped almost the entire population of the unlucky village: 107 men, women and children. He then took them back to North Africa to sell as slaves; a French missionary priest working in Algiers later saw several of Murat's Irish victims put up for auction, but after that, very little more was heard of them. It is this little piece of history that Hector's story is based on - or at least the first part of it. The rest of the cultures that Hector encounters throughout the novel did exist at the time it was set, and without wanting to give too much of the later plot away, the novel explores the rivalries and interactions between these cultures, largely using boats (unsurprisingly) and the slave trade as his key themes and plot devices.
Severin has certainly done his historical research well is preparing for this novel. Most writers of historical fiction only have to contend with one location, but in this novel the wider picture of a region and all its variations at one particular time have to be researched. While I am far from an expert in late 1600s Barbary, it does come across as a clear and fairly realistic picture of the world that Hector encounters; while some of the devices for imparting the author's knowledge are clunky and contrived (Severin certainly never manages the smooth integration of historical fact into the story in the way that, say, Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell do), the information imparted is interesting and helped me to understand the setting - and it is an intriguing one. I also really appreciate it when writers of historical fiction take care to provide for their readers a map (as place names, borders and kingdoms change so much over time) and a set of historical notes at the back of the novel so you can explore just how the story you have read fits into the reality of the period. Severin has done just this, which gets him brownie points from me.
But, if the setting, premise, period and historical research were all good, just why was it that I found this book less enjoyable that I expected? Well, partly it was because of the writing. As I mentioned above, some of the text is annoyingly contrived; characters sometimes have unnatural conversations and speech patterns as an excuse for the author to tell the reader something important (or it some instances, just to show off what he knows). There is also the point that Hector gets moved on from one setting to the next very abruptly in places. In the "Viking" books this made the plot fast-paced, energetic and exciting, but here it just seems that you never really get to know any one place or person very well before they are gone. It makes some parts of the book seem rather staccato, and I felt the prose didn't always flow as neatly as it could - which suggests that it could have been improved a good deal with some decent editing! I think some of the problem might have been due to the fact that our hero in the "Viking" books was a free and independent adventurer, whereas Hector spends a lot of his time as a slave. This makes a big difference in terms of story, as it means that Hector, for a large part of the time, has no control over his destiny and is simply a passive object in the plot. Casting him as a slave could have worked very well indeed, but his inability control his fate was constantly a hindrance to where the story could take him - and us as readers.
The other thing I had a problem with was despite the amount of time that we spent with Hector over the course of the book, I never felt the reader got to know him very well. A lot of his character seemed to be made up of elements that were convenient to the tale; he needed to be Protestant for one part of the story to work, but the Latin education he could only have realistically got in a Catholic environment was necessary for another part. He just happens to be gifted at learning languages, another indispensable survival tool for his adventures. It seems that for every problem he encounters, he just happens to have the right skill to overcome it - or he has recently acquired another two-dimensional friend who can do it. This makes it hard to empathise with Hector, even when he is in the obviously appalling conditions of slavery. He really needs to develop some weaknesses, failings, bad habits or just something negative to make him more believable and creditable as a character.
Towards the end of the novel, we do get a glimpse of Severin's ability as a writer emerging again, and this gives me hope for the next book in the series, "Buccaneer" (which has recently been released at the time of writing). I have to wonder whether "Corsair" was intended more as an introduction into Hector's world than a full-throttled action story in itself - or if it was just a novel rich in research and poor on time spent getting the prose right, rushed out in the wake of a successful trilogy to capitalise on Severin's promise as a novelist. I hope that more time has been spent developing characters and plot in this second instalment and that it picks up from the promising ending that this book gave us. "Corsair" was a bit disappointing, but it hasn't been enough to put me off reading more of Severin's work - in future I will get his novels from the library rather than buying them, though!
Paperback: 256 pages
Released: 1st June 2007
Price: I bought my copy for £6.99 from Waterstone's
Amazon: £5.49, http://tinyurl.com/6l6ejx