Wednesday 10 January 2018

The Ballade of Mary Reede - Or the Twilight of the Buccaneers by N. C. Schell

AMAZONUK £5.42 £11.50
AMAZONUS $7.16 $13.95

Nautical / Pirates / Fictional Saga
18th Century

Twilight of the Buccaneers series: Book 1

One summer in 1752, the son of an old shipmate visits John Tanner at his home in the hills of New England. This lad brings with him a small chest with the message that perhaps it’s time to tell the story. What’s inside awakens a host of memories and emotions – some good, some bad – but his friend is right. Nearly three decades have passed since Captain Johnson published his account of the pirates, and he omitted many details to protect John and others. Better to record the full story now, before it’s too late.

Captain Charles Johnson first entered John’s life at the age of ten. The successful investor had once sailed with William Dampier and later journeyed to the Levant. He also has a particular fascination with pirates, attending their trials, collecting anecdotes, and interviewing them in their gaol cells before they hang. When John turns thirteen, Johnson provides him with the opportunity to learn the trade of ship’s carpenter. Once John receives his papers, Johnson offers him the position of master carpenter aboard the Rachel, a brig he helped to build.

Rachel sails for the Caribbean, where the threat from pirates has lessened since Governor Woodes Rogers arrived at New Providence. She is a happy ship and all goes well until a topsail schooner is sighted off the island of Turks. John’s best friend, able seaman Candy Jones, suspects those aboard the strange sail are pirates, perhaps even some he knows. He hopes not, as he took the King’s Pardon and has no intention of going back on his word.

After the captain is rowed over to the pirate ship, some of the cutthroats board the Rachel. Two in particular catch John’s attention. The first is Black Mike Magoon, whom John likens to a “maddened highland bullock.” He once sailed with Blackbeard and is just as crazy and violent. The other has a handsome face and keen eyes that always watch what’s happening around him. Mark Reede is quiet and polite, but prefers people call him by his surname. When John finds himself on Black Mike’s bad side, Reede saves John’s life. Doing so is to honor their captain’s wishes, but the intervention heightens the animosity between the two pirates and Black Mike vows a day of reckoning will come – sooner rather than later.

After Captain Jack Rackham comes aboard Rachel, the looting begins, a trial is held, and volunteers are asked to join their merry band. But John and Candy aren’t given an opportunity to decline Rackham’s generous offer. Both are forced; neither signs the pirates’ articles and each vows to do only what he must to survive. Reede is given the responsibility of protecting and teaching John. As the days pass, John enjoys his time with Reede, yet is also perplexed by feelings that don’t make sense. Although the pirates successfully raid other vessels and trade with maroons and smugglers, their seizures incense the authorities and before long pirate hunters are on their trail.

This is by no means just a pirate tale. It’s also about the maroons and smugglers, people whose lives intersected with pirates. The meaning of nautical jargon may stump a few readers, but its use never impedes the story’s flow. Schell incorporates a mock trial into this narrative, but as a wonderfully descriptive way of showing how pirates entertained themselves and sat in judgment of sea captains and their treatment of the sailors under them. His interpretation of how the animosity sparks between Reede and Magoon is plausible and enlightening. The same is true of what happens to Anne Bonny after she is condemned to hang.

Having Charles Johnson, the author of the most famous pirate history ever published, participate in this story is both delightful and refreshing. His role may be minor, but it is definitely an important one that is easily believed. Schell instills life into this historian’s book so it is no longer mere words on the page. His portrayal of these men and women is as vivid and realistic as the world he weaves around them. He is a master at creating unique, memorable characters be they major or minor ones. Although I share Irish roots with Anne Bonny, it is Mary Reed who has long been my favorite of this famous duo and this story is an admirable and realistic portrayal of her life. As for the minor characters, my favorite is Trinket, a pirate who comes back from the dead.

The Ballade of Mary Reede is the first book in the Twilight of the Buccaneers series. It is a well-crafted, captivating tale rich in historical detail and pirate lore. The love story is both heartwarming and heart wrenching, and even though history tells us how the story must end, never once does Schell permit us to stop hoping that love will triumph. His re-imagining of John’s farewell to Mary is a poignant moment that stays with you long after the story ends.

© Cindy Vallar

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