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Book Review: Pirates! by Celia Rees

“No sooner am I ashore, than I wish to be away again. My home is the ship. My country is the sea.”

Pirates! by Celia Rees is one of my old favourites. Rereading this takes me back to the time when it was published in 2003, the same year Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released—the beginning of a resurgence of popularity of pirates. This book also brings back Captain Charles Johnson's (possibly Daniel Defoe under a pseudonym) A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Published in 1724, it is a collection of histories about well known pirates such as Edward Teach, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, William Kidd and many others.

This is the journey of Nancy Kington: the recount of her story through her own eyes, written for contribution to Captain Johnson's rumored second edition of his famous book about pirates. After her father’s death, Nancy travels from Bristol to her father’s plantation in Jamaica. Events lead Nancy and her friend—a runaway slave—Minerva Sharpe, to escape their home and join a pirate ship. They become part of the crew, important as any man. Things are complicated when Nancy’s love from England, William, becomes a sailor in the English navy.

Their adventure story is almost a classic, but so well written and researched. There are plenty of surprises, plus general good old swashbuckling and pirating. Their travels take them over many oceans and include piratical things such as rite of passage events for those being initiated into crossing over the equator, duels, mutiny, storms, the pirate’s code and almost anything else piratey that you can think of.

The settings are rich, so much that I almost smell the spices.

“I envy you then…to view the Islands for the first time, with fresh eyes. To see their mountains and forests rising up from the sea, like emeralds heaped on a silver salver.”

Both Nancy and Minerva are both strong. Nancy experiences much character growth over her story. In the beginning she is oblivious to the plans the men in her life have for her. She’s a means of currency to them. Nancy and Minerva’s bonds of friendship give them strength, yet if they are faced with separation, they hold maturity. Minerva is constantly faced with the challenge of her race. There are many circumstances in which her decisions are made solely because of this—how she is treated by others. Not to mention, they are both women in a man’s world. Pirating allows them their own freedom as individuals.

The writing may be slower than novels can be these days, but many were at the point in time when this was written. I find it was nice to have a slower paced book and didn’t feel it lagged anywhere. There was plenty of action and the gruesome parts of pirate life were mentioned, but not focused on. I still feel as if there is potential to provide more depth for the main characters and settings, but again, other novels that I have read published around this time for this age group are similar.

Pirates! is aimed for young adults, but would be interesting for anyone at any age who has imagined running away to be a pirate, living on a tropical island or finding family in unexpected places.

“To youth,” she proclaimed. “And freedom.”

5 stars

First read: 2008

Reread: August 2019

Published: 2003

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