Tim Severin is perhaps best known for his attempts to recreate ancient voyages and journeys. He began in 1961 by following the path of Marco Polo on motorbike, before adding a slightly more traditional twist to later journeys by using authentic forms of transport. In 1976 he followed the alleged voyage of St Brendan and sailed from Ireland to North America in a replica of a currach (an old celtic craft made of a wooden frame covered in animal hides). There were others too: imitating Sinbad in an arabic Dhow, various Greek heroes in a Bronze Age galley. This sort of bold reenactment usually falls somewhere between serious history and stuff like the History Channel’s Deadliest Warrior, but it is interesting, entertaining and, more to the point, is not really what I’m going to talk about in this post.
Alongside all this, Tim Severin has begun to write historical fiction with a series on 11th century Vikings and one on 17th century barbary pirates. Corsair (the opening book in this latter series) works well enough as a stand alone tale, telling the story of 17 year old Hector Lynch from a small village in County Cork, Ireland. Lynch is the son of a minor Protestant* noble father and a Catholic spanish mother who is captured, along with his sister Elizabeth, by Barbary pirates in a raid on his village. As the corsairs leave the coast of Ireland their boats are scattered and the siblings are separated. The search for his sister then provides the great motivation for young Hector throughout the rest of the book.
Bernard Cornwell is the obviously reference point for this kind of fiction, but this is a much less cynical world than Cornwell’s. That’s not to say it isn’t tough – there is brutality and violence everywhere and most of the cast ends up dead one way or another – but there’s a lot less glee to it. Lynch is focused on rescuing his sister, himself and his friends and never quite becomes an agent of vengeance or skilled warrior. He’s not bad with a musket, but he spends most of his time acting as a clerk. Lynch constantly finds himself supported by skilled characters who are more than willing to pass on their knowledge of boats, navigation, gunpowder etc.
Passing on this knowledge is perhaps the most glaring fault of the book. At times these can become a little like short lectures. Severin clearly loves the history of the era and he’s trying to cram so much of it into three hundred pages that the storytelling suffers slightly. It stumbles from one exposition to another and we’re exposed to galley life (both Christian and Turk), life as an unfortunate public slave, as a better off slave for a wealthy master, free ports like Livorno and numerous other environments and activities. It’s all colourful and interesting, but it feels like the story and the characters take a back seat to all this history.
Despite this, the story is held together by Lynch’s desperate aim to find out what happened to his sister. This builds to a climax and actually weaves together some of the different plot strands and characters quite nicely. Slightly unfortunately, the book doesn’t end there though – we get another trek as Lynch and friends aim to find their way off the Barbary coast. It’s still pretty good and has a climax of its own, but the resulting end point feels slightly arbitrary.
For further reading on Barbary piracy (particularly for raids on Irish villages like Baltimore) I’ll link to an old post of mine, but there are also real historical references beyond that like the brutal ruler Mouley Ismail and the rare tales of slaves on Christian galleys (the account of Jean Marteilhe, a French protestant, is important here).
On the whole it’s entertaining, if a little light weight in places. The author covers a lot of ground and writes convincingly about the period, but I felt that he tried to put a bit too much detail in too short a time and didn’t develop the characters and plot as well as they could have been. I would happily continue to read the series and follow the future adventures of Hector Lynch, but it is some way off challenging the big names in the genre.
* The religion is somewhat irrelevant to his character – Hector switches apathetically between Islam and different strands of Christianity based on his own convenience.