Yes, this Friday is National Talk Like A Pirate Day! In honor of the day your coworkers go around saying “argh!” without provocation, I knew I had to pull together a list of pirate books. I was going to do a post on just space pirates, because good golly are there a lot of them. But I thought it would be fun to round up all my favorite genre pirates. Sometimes the pirates are the heroes of the story — misunderstood rogues with hearts of gold. Sometimes they are the cutthroat villains of a novel — the thing that our hero is running from. The best thing about adding a pirate to a story is that you almost automatically get a blend. Pirates bring adventure, danger, and excitement to a plot. Since there are so many books of all different genres that feature pirate, I’m breaking it up into a few posts. Today will be your traditional historical fiction pirates. Then later in the week I’ll round up three of the other genres that pirates most often makes an appearance: fantasy, romance and SF. So avast ya scurvy bilge rats, put down yer grog. I’ve yer tastiest tales o’ the jolly roger afore ye. (Sorry — I’ll stop.)
Historical Fiction Pirates
The most traditional way to encounter pirates in fiction is in the historical fiction genre. Even in that broad category, there’s a lot of variety in these stories. For as long as people have sailed the planet’s oceans, there have probably been pirates, so you can get pirate stories set in many time periods. The stories are often full of colorful locations, bigger-than-life characters, and lots of action. In other word, these books are often great adventure stories. That’s probably one reason that pirate stories have been successfully made into successful Hollywood movies, from classic Errol Flynn vehicles like Captain Blood to the more recent blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I’ve collected some of the most popular historical fiction novels featuring pirates, but let me know if I missed one of your favorites.
Captain Blood by Raphael Sabatini (TOP PICK)
Peter Blood is a former soldier retired to country life as a doctor in 17th century England. When called to treat a man wounded in the Monmouth Rebellion, he is arrested for treason by the king’s men. Shipped to the Caribbean, he finds himself the property of a cruel landowner who happens to have a gorgeous niece. The rest of the plot is completely expected, but still enjoyable. He escapes his slavery, takes to the life of a pirate and somehow must find a way to win the lovely Arabella.
The Sea-Hawk by Raphael Sabatini
Another winner from Sabatini that was made into a thrilling movie with Errol Flynn. The story is set at the end of the 16th century, when retired Cornish seafaring gentleman, Sir Oliver Tressilian is villainously betrayed by a jealous half-brother. After being forced to serve as a slave on a galley, Sir Oliver is liberated by Barbary pirates. He joins the pirates, gaining the name “Sakr-el-Bahr”, the hawk of the sea, and swears vengeance against his brother.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
I almost put this one in the pile for the romance post but most people will probably find Du Maurier in their general fiction stacks. Set during the 17th century restoration period in England, bored, restless Dona who leaves London for her husband’s remote estate in Cornwall and finds the home being used as a pirate base of operations. The head pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry is a charming, educated and handsome man and of COURSE Dona falls for him. She joins the pirate crew, but when her husband finds out, Dona and her pirate are in grave danger.
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
I’ll admit I always found the Baroque Cycle of books daunting, but now that I know the second book has pirates, I’ll have to give it a try! As this volume opens, Jack Shaftoe is a captive on a Barbary slave ship circa 1689. He soon escapes and joins a quest for the lost treasure of a Spanish pirate named Carlos Olancho Macho y Macho. Although the plot sounds like a lark, Stephenson’s novels are usually pretty densely written, so this probably reads less like your typical adventure novel.
Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Normally, the 17th century swashbuckling adventures of sword-for-hire Captain Diego Alatriste and his foster son Íñigo take place on dry land. This time around, the two set sail aboard a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon and have a variety of adventures where they encounter pirates and moors before engaging in a climactic battle with a fleet of Turkish ships. Even more than is typical, there are a LOT of battles in this book, but always anchored by Perez-Reverte’s lovely prose and rich characetrs.
The Barbary Pirates by William Dietrich
One of the more reliable of the novelists writing historical adventure novels today, Dietrich’s Ethan Gage novels set in the early 19th century are hugely entertaining, if occasionally overstuffed with improbable plots. Gage is an Indiana Jones-like adventurer who collects ancient artifacts. Here he seeks the Mirror of Archimedes, a weapon that supposedly wiped out a Roman fleet. Travelling from Greece to Italy on the trail of the artifact, Gage is pursued by a gang of viscious pirates who want the mirror for themselves.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
This sounds like a truly bizarre combination of high seas adventure and foodie porn. Description from the publisher: The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. This one got some good reviews, and seems like a lot of fun.
The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian (TOP PICK)
Those who know me are aware of my deep and abiding love for Patrick O’Brian’s novels featuring British Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin set during the Napoleonic era. I’ve read them all, most of them more than once, and while they can absolutely be read independently, there is something to be gained by watching the characters evolve over the series. There are probably more books in the series that feature pirates (Treason’s Harbour, I think), but this one (14th in the series) leapt to mind. It picks up where The Thirteen-Gun Salute left off: with Jack and Stephen and the crew of the Diane shipwrecked in the Dutch East Indies. They work to build a vessel from the wreckage, but Malay pirate attack and burn the ship. They have to get really creative to get off the island.
The Captain’s Vengeance by Dewey Lambdin
Set at the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Alan Lewrie is sailing the waters of the Caribbean searching for a French prize ship that disappeared along with members of Lewrie’s crew. He will face off against cutthroat pirates and visit the squalid port of New Orleans in this adventure. I tried this series to scratch my O’Brian itch, but for me they never worked. Still lots of action (sexual as well as Naval, which I admit is NOT on offer for the Aubrey/Maturin books) for those who can’t get enough of the subgenre.
The Complete Midshipman Bolitho by Alexander Kent
Another series trying to capture the Hornblower/Aubrey magic in a bottle, I haven’t given these a try yet. In the series opener (this edition has the first three books) Richard is a 16-year-old midshipman on the Gorgon, in the years preceding the Napoleonic Wars. Just because it’s peacetime doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for the Navy to do, though, as his ship is sent to the African coast to hunt pirates. Anybody read these and liked them?
Other naval adventure series to try (with varying degrees of pirate participation:
- Ramage books by Dudley Pope
- Nathaniel Drinkwater series by Richard Woodman
- Charles Hayden S. Thomas Russell (first book of this series, Under Enemy Colorsis fanTAStic)
and of course
- Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester (I adore the early books especially, and LOVE the movies! For the stories… and maybe a little bit for gorgeous Ioan Gruffudd.
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