Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas by M. Kei

Lt. Peter Thorton of the 18th century British navy must struggle to come out gay while surviving storms at sea, ship to ship battles, duels, kidnapping, and more in his quest for true love and honor.

My own Quick Summary

Lt. Peter Thorton is in love with fellow lieutenant Perry. Both men are given commissions to serve aboard HMS Ajax, taking an Islamic envoy to talks in France. Peter makes an enemy of the Captain, who is largely incompetent but doesn’t like people who show they know it. During a storm, the Ajax comes to the rescue of a sinking Spanish galley. The Spanish abandon their vessel, leaving their slaves, chained to the oars, to sink with the ship. Peter and several of the other British sailors attempt to free the slaves and stop the galley from sinking. As they do so, the storm blows the two ships apart, leaving him surrounded by freed slaves who have no desire to voluntarily sail back to the Ajax to be reunited with their captors.

Command of the galley is taken by Isam bin Hamet al-Tangueli (Captain Tangle to his crew) a famous pirate of the Barbary coast, who had been serving as a galley slave following capture by the Spanish. The story then follows Peter’s slow naturalization into the ways of the Sallee Rovers, and his growing understanding that he’s better off in a culture that allows him to love other men without censure. Rejected by Perry and wooed by Tangle, Peter has to decide where his loyalty really lies.

(First of a series)

Review by Alex Beecroft

As Speak Its Name’s reviewer most familiar with the Age of Sail, I tend to get all the books which deal with pirates and naval officers in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This is not a bad thing, as I’m always keenly on the look out for the next Patrick O’Brian, and I enjoy a naval battle possibly slightly more than the next person.

Recently I seem to have read nothing but the kind of Age of Sail book where all the action goes on in the Great Cabin, the sails apparently handle themselves, the Captain has nothing to do except to shag his cabin boy, and wind, waves, currents and the ships of other nations never appear at all.

So I was excited to be given this book to read. I had already seen M. Kei’s blog and knew he was someone who was interested in the history and the sailing for its own sake. This, I thought, was going to be different from the outboard-motor historicals I’d read before. I went into it with great hopes.

I almost gave up on it in the first five pages. There are two flaws, IMO, that a historical novel can fall into – one is not to care about the history at all, and the other is to care so much that you load your story with all your research, so that it reads like pages out of a text book cut up and joined together with a thin excuse for a story.

At the beginning of the book, I feared I’d come up against the second type. There seemed to be a lot of explaining how the Admiralty works, explaining about the Articles of War, and the “Captain’s Cloak” which gives a captain absolute authority at sea, etc etc. By contrast there wasn’t a lot of concentration on the characters of Peter and Perry. Also, the first few chapters were very similar to the first few chapters I’ve read of very many AoS books—officers receive their orders, travel to find their ship. The ship and the other officers are introduced. They make ready to sail, etc.

So up until about chapter 7 (the chapters are quite short) I was feeling that this was a worthy attempt which had become choked by its own research.

However—this is a big however—once I hit chapter 8 I started to sit up and take notice. The story suddenly took off. The scene of Peter and his boarding party frantically struggling to free the slaves before the whole ship sank under them was nail-bitingly intense. I cast off all my quibbles and began to thoroughly enjoy myself.

From chapter 8 onwards, the story moved from the path, well-trodden by Forester and O’Brian, of adventures in the British Navy, and entered the realm of the Barbary corsairs. The research began to feel more naturally embedded in the story – for example, it becomes not only fascinating to find out that galleys have watertight bulkheads, but also vitally important for the story. The culture clash between Peter and Tangle was beautifully drawn and gripping—Peter simultaneously proving that he is an admirable, honourable man while learning to appreciate the Islamic way of doing many things, from daily washing to sail-handling.

His realization that Tangle finds him attractive and that he returns the admiration is handled beautifully. Peter has been in the grip of some pretty terrible low self esteem as a result of his “unnatural” and “abominable” inclinations, and it’s beautiful to watch his confidence blossom as he slowly begins to accept that in Tangle’s culture it really isn’t that big a deal.

Over the course of the novel, Tangle and Peter negotiate a treaty with Britain and France which enables them both to serve together united in enmity against Spain. Peter converts to Islam and resigns his commission as a result. Tangle fights a duel with Bishop (Peter’s bad ex-captain) and then spends much of the end of the book trying to get his old ship and possessions back out of the hands of his brother in law, who snapped them up when everyone thought that Tangle would never be coming back.

As is typical for an Age of Sail book, this is more of a “slice of life” than a “romance” with a strict beginning, middle and end. Things happen the way they happen in real life—unexpectedly and often surprisingly. And I like that. The plot here is formed by the arc of character development—Peter learning to accept himself, and Isam learning that although he’s a mighty pirate, sometimes there are things he can’t have all his own way. Just as I enjoyed Peter’s development from self-hatred to confidence, I enjoyed the slow way that Isam’s character went from ‘tragic heroism’ to ‘slightly overbearing but endearingly sunny’. I also enjoyed the constant nautical competence of both characters. I do like a hero who knows how to do his job!

To conclude: I loved the book. I enjoyed it immensely, and I thought it was a wonderful breath of fresh air that it concentrated on the culture of a maritime nation which normally gets cast as the baddies in AoS books.

I wish I could give it five stars. However I’m going to take off a half for the slightly belaboured start. Also—I presume because it’s self-published—there are numerous typos. I would very much urge M. Kei to offer it to a publisher like Lethe Press because I’m certain that a professional edit would be all this book needs to be perfect. Even at 4.5 stars though, if you have any interest at all in the age of sail, I highly recommend that you rush out and get this book. I received an ebook copy for the purposes of this review, but as soon as I’ve posted this I’m going to go and buy it in print.

Author’s Website

Buy at Lulu

3 Responses

  1. Oh this sounds lovely. As someone who has pretty much figured out that “pointy end of a boat goes forward” I’m not sure the slow start would matter so much to me (unless the pointy end went backwards and completely messed up my world view). I hope the author offers it to Lethe — I’d love to read it with a good polish up!

  2. The reviewer had a proof copy. I assure you, the printed version has had its typos fixed!

    You may also read all three books in the trilogy free online at: NarrowSeas.blogspot.com

    Thus you may ‘try before you buy.’

    I do believe that if you are new to tall ships the opening chapters will help you slip easily into the world of 18th century naval affairs; I was very much aware that many readers would need a little time to find their sea legs, so to speak.

  3. Update: Bristlecone Pine Press has bought the ebook rights to the Pirates of the Narrow Seas series. By agreement with the publisher, the free online versions of books two and three have been removed, but the first book still remains.

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