A bit of an unusual double-header review today, because I recently read a pair of pirate-history-related books one after the other, and they complemented each other in such a satisfying way that I thought I had to recommend you get yourself a copy of both, if you even remotely like pirate stuff.
The first half of this brace is Colin Woodard’s (2007) The Republic of Pirates, ‘Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down’ – i.e. Woodes Rogers. As you may know, the Golden Age of Piracy (well… in the Caribbean, at least) ran from 1715 to 1725, and was the extraordinary time when Bellamy, Blackbeard, Vane, Hornigold and even the faintly ridiculous Stede Bonnet were all in play. Woodard tells their stories well and with reference to a generous boatload of near-primary evidence.
Just about all you could criticize him for is perhaps throwing too many pirates at you all at once – there’s a point about halfway through when the reader almost inevitably gets pirate fatigue. But give yourself a good slug of rum (with plenty of lime, sugar and ice) and persist, it’s well worth the effort.
The second half of the twosome is something that’s both wonderfully edgy and crazily sophisticated all at the same time. You may have heard that Tim Powers’ (1987) On Stranger Tides was used – sort of – as a plot backbone for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film (which was hugely successful, even if it got mixed-to-poor reviews).
But Powers’ book is really much better than the big-budget film schtick loosely ‘inspired’ by it: and it sets up its darkly magical twists and turns without having to resort to the kind of special effect extravaganza the PotC film goes all-in for. In fact, Powers is often described as writing a kind of “gonzo history”, because he comes across (perhaps a little surprisingly) as a bit of a history obsessive, trying extremely hard to fit his story around the very real history of the pirates, as later documented by Colin Woodard.
For me, what is truly epic is this: read these two books back to back (Woodard first, then Powers) and at the end of it, it’s as if you’ve been immersed in a fantastically detailed, near-immersive pirate fantasy world. Much better than 3D! 🙂