Friday, 18 September 2009

‘Fast Ships, Black Sails’ – Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Nightshade Books)

‘Talk like a Pirate Day’ isn’t until tomorrow but since when does a real pirate follow any rules other than his own capricious whims? Yeah... today’s review has nothing at all to do with me getting the dates mixed up. No, not at all...
‘Fast Ships, Black Sails’ is a 2008 release that sought to fill in the ‘skull and crossbones’ shaped hole where an anthology of ‘fantasy and science fiction pirate stories’ should have been. This book certainly filled in that hole but what did it fill it with...? I’d already found the place where X marked the spot; it was time to get digging and see what treasure I could find. There were plenty of doubloons to be found but also a couple of smelly old boots at the same time...

The VanderMeer’s set out to show their readers that while there is plenty of fun to be had with the typical pirate stereotype (black beard, parrot on one shoulder etc) there is also a lot more fun to be had with the kinds of pirate that you wouldn’t normally expect to find at all. I wasn’t entirely sure what the overall point of Katherine Sparrow’s ‘Pirate Solutions’ was but what it did show was that software pirates can make their way across the seven seas just as easily as regular pirates can. Were they on the seas though or were they sailing the internet itself? I don’t know... Maybe a re-read will help there.
Pirates don’t necessarily even have to be human as Rachel Swirsky show’s in ‘The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth’, a story that ended up becoming one of my favourites. Two rats take to a life of crime on the high seas (or at the very least, a large stream) and stray into Edward Lear territory when they meet a shipwrecked cat. Maybe it’s because I’ve kept rats in the past but the sight of these two black hearted villains taking on a world much bigger than them never failed to make me smile and Sully’s burgeoning romance with the cat was so unlikely that I had to see how it all panned out.
Another favourite was Rhys Hughes’ ‘Castor on Troubled Waters’ where, in the best traditions of cheating pirates everywhere, a Welshman comes up with a novel way of getting out of paying his friends their winnings from a game of cards. What I love about this story is the way that our ‘hero’ tells it all with a totally straight face; his story is outlandish but this is a collection of fantasy tales so it’s almost like you’re expecting something like this anyway. It’s only right at the end when everything fits together (almost perfectly) and the punch line is delivered that you realise that you’ve been taken in just as much as Jenkins’ friends were. Not many stories make me laugh out loud but this one did.

The rest of the book is divided up along more traditional lines; namely space pirates and our very own pirates of the last three or four hundred years (don’t let this fool you though; there is still plenty of room for magic and fantasy in these tales). There are also a couple of straight fantasy tales; I’d never read anything by Carrie Vaughn before (says Graeme, frantically trying to remember if Vaughn has contributed to the latest Wild Cards collections...) and if ‘The Nymph’s Child’ is anything to go by I’ll be picking up more of her work. I love a fantasy tale with a spin and Vaughn’s tale introduces us to a dragon that doesn’t behave in quite the way you would expect... Garth Nix’ tale (‘Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe’) was also well worth the entry price and Kage Baker’s ‘I Begyn as I Mean To Go On’ didn’t disappoint either.

There wasn’t a single ‘fantasy pirate tale’ that I didn’t enjoy, in one way or another, but I did find that most of the science fiction tales didn’t really work for me. I’ll admit that part of this is down to personal preference (Fantasy or Sci-Fi? Always fantasy!) but it felt like a number of the sci-fi pieces came across as being isolated incidents to the point of being incomplete. Moorcock’s ‘Ironface’ tells you straight out that it’s a vignette so I wasn’t expecting much in terms of depth but it felt like all it was there for was to show off another part of the multi-verse with a little name dropping on the side. This would have worked better in a collection of Moorcock’s own work, maybe a tale of Elric’s freebooting days would have been better here?
Both ‘The Whale Below’ and ‘Pirates of the Suara Sea’ felt similarly disjointed, like a random chapter of a book rather than a complete story. ‘Boojum’ (Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette) was superb though, just how it should be done.

I found ‘Fast Ships, Black Sails’ to be a mixed bag but the treasures that it threw up made reading through the rest a more than worthwhile experience. Is there any chance of a sequel anthology?

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten.


Harry Markov said...

Oh, this sounds interesting enough. I did get an electronic copy and hope that I do get great treasures.

Mardel said...

Carrie Vaughn is a great writer. I love her werewolf series. Elizabeth Bear is also a superb writer. I imagine that what ever she writes is going to be interesting.

The ending that made you laugh reminded me of a book that my son (who was 8 at the time) and I were reading a book together. I don't remember the name, but it was one of RL Stine's Goosebump books. There are two boys (this is just what I remember) who are afraid of this monster, they go through the whole book dealing with their fear and finally at the end, one of them is describing this horrendously scary thing to us (the reader), as having pink skin, two arms, two legs, and only two eyes! When we realized it was a human I laughed so hard that I almost couldn't breath. Good memory. That son of mine is now 20years old.