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REVIEW: Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

REVIEW SUMMARY: Time-traveling pirates – what is not to love? OK, there isn’t really any science fiction in this story, but it is a fun book non the less.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Father Chris is more than he appears when he admits to killing a man in his past. The story of how it happened takes you back to the time of real pirates raiding Spanish ships full of treasure from the new world.

PROS: Gene Wolfe is a master storyteller with a command of the English language I can only marvel at. His prose – especially his character’s dialog – puts him amongst the best writers of our time, and this book is no exception. Brilliant ending. Generally strong female characters.
CONS: Fans of Wofle’s other more complex works might be disappointed by this rather straight-forward tale. Similar premise to Wizard Knight with a similar protagonist.
BOTTOM LINE: Gene Wolfe never stops surprising me with the variety of settings and types of people he writes about. Where will we end up next? I don’t know, but I can’t wait.

Father Chris reveals to a confessor that he has murdered somebody in his past. The confessor asks for details, and the book we read is a result of that. When he was a boy, he ends up in the 1600’s in the Caribbean where he eventually becomes a pirate. The tale that follows is filled with action, nautical details, and interesting characters. The best are Captain Burt and the girls Azuka and Novia. Most of the women in this book are portrayed as strong people – as I figure those surviving in this area and time had to be. Father Chris takes breaks from his writing and talks about his life in the present day and we can see that he is eventually driving to do something drastic, and what that turns out to be ends the book in a highly satisfying way.

There is a lot to say about this book, and while it certainly isn’t perfect it is a very fun book to read. A non-Wolfe fan can pick this one up, read it, and come away satisfied with a touching, swashbuckling adventure tale. Wolfe fans on the other hand might be disappointed – it lacks much of the tricky narrative (surprisingly it seems this narrator seems reliable) or complex ‘read between the lines’ approach found in some of his other stories. Or does it? Is there an allegory in here after all? Is the narrator as reliable as he seems. With Wolfe it is often hard to tell, and perhaps he has simply been more subtle than he has in his previous books? If so I’d say he might have missed the mark, because most often the book is exactly what is appears to be.

At the risk of moving beyond review and into critique, here are a few things I was able to garner from the text that made me think there might be something more than a simple tale. Chris’s father is a mobster who moved from New Jersey to Cuba (in the near future) to open a casino. He seemed to want to protect Chris from that life so he sent him to a boarding school at a nearby Catholic monastery. But when the school closes, his dad doesn’t come to get him and so abandons him. Or was he killed? Or did he disappear into the past as well? Is he Valentin? Or Lesage? Were they one and the same?

Chris’ name itself makes him appear somewhat Christ-like. There are other religious aspects as well – Chris mentions he has three aspects – the boy, the Father, and the pirate. There is a major betrayal during the story that reminded me of Judas (but then, don’t they all?) Of course Chris is a priest and brings up several aspects of the Catholic church (including his take on the problems of sexual harassment in the church.)

I don’t want to make more out of the story than is there. If there are sub-textual elements they are deep – far deeper than the New Sun trilogy. I didn’t care for all of Wolfe’s descriptions. For example, during the voyage around Cape Horn I became lost and never really understood what Wolfe was describing. The last battle seemed rushed with little of his typical detail. Perhaps he felt there had been enough fighting sequences, but I missed it.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others, especially those who haven’t read Gene Wolfe before.

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