Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review 2016 #4 - Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab by Gideon Defoe
Published by: Pantheon
Publication Date: October 4th, 2005
Format: Hardcover, 160 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

After the main-mast falls over for the third time in a week the pirate with a scarf reluctantly and cautiously approaches the Pirate Captain about perhaps getting a new boat. After admitting to his number two that perhaps covering the holes in his quarters with dashing pictures of himself isn't the best way to keep a boat afloat, seeing as a stiff breeze could conceivably kill off half the pirate crew and the Pirate Captain himself has never bothered to learn to swim he agrees that they go to Nantucket and Cutlass Liz's boatyard. There they run into two interesting people. One is Ahab, a dour whaler who is searching the world for the great white whale who took his leg off with a big chomp, the other is the Pirate Captain's Nemesis, Black Bellamy. Black Bellamy eggs the Pirate Captain on to buying a boat, The Lovely Emma, which the crew can in no way afford. Desperate to quickly get the cash for fear of Cutlass Liz and her ways of dealing with those who don't pay the pirates go in search of treasure! When that fails they try gambling. When that fails they try putting on a Vegas show. When that fails the pirate in red suggests perhaps they try some piracy? When that fails they just might take up Ahab's quest, they keep running into him and he's now offering a reward equal to the cost of their new boat. But can the Pirate Captain and his crew really succeed where Ahab has failed? And if they do can they succeed before Cutlass Liz gets violent?

What seems like years ago now, probably because it was, I remember seeing a few of Gideon Defoe's Pirates! books at Half Price Books and thinking they looked rather fun. I promptly forgot about them because do you realize the number of books I look at on a daily basis? It's seriously staggering. But shortly thereafter Lauren Willig mentioned them in passing as being hilarious so this confluence of events led me to order the first two books, handily sold as one volume, and I put it on my bookshelf and promptly forgot about them again. Fast forward to 2012 and Aardman Animation has adapted the first book for the screen. David Tennant, Hugh Grant, Russell Tovey, no wait, not Russell Tovey in the US, grumble, grumble, but once again I thought of the books and again promptly forgot. For some reason all my encounters with Gideon Defoe's work was promptly forgotten until his third book, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, was picked out of the hat for book club in 2016. Not being one to start in the middle of a series I picked up my copy of the first two books, promptly fell in love, ordered the next three books and plundered my way through them all.

The thing is, I've always had a soft spot for pirates. This started quite young with my parents reading Irene Haas's The Maggie B. to me. A young girl wishes for a boat to travel the world in with her little brother. I wanted a boat just like it for myself. A pirate ship in miniature with flora and fauna and the coziest rooms you could ever imagine that weathered all storms. As I grew up there were Lego pirate ships and Playmobil pirate ships that actually floated helmed by my Star Wars figures. There were hideouts down by the railway tracks and in my back yard with hammocks, just like on a real pirate ship. There were other books too like Peter Pan and The Princess Bride, and tons of movies from The Goonies to Muppet Treasure Island to Hook. Finally there was Pirates of the Caribbean, opening night at Point Cinema on the UltraScreen with my girlfriends. Some were there to see Johnny Depp, some to see Orlando Bloom, and some to see an anvil three stories tall. I was there for the pirates!

But these Pirates! by Gideon Defoe, they are a breed apart. They are the love children of Blackadder and the briny deep, with historical cameos thrown in just as much as historical accuracy is thrown out. With this lovability that makes you just want to take them home give them a big feast predominately of ham and tell them a good bedtime story before tucking them in for the night. Gideon Defoe's writing combines the wit and love of footnotes of Terry Pratchett with the absurdity of Monty Python. Yet it's so uniquely his own that while I can draw comparisons all day it will never do justice to a series of books that need to be read for their hats and their love of ham. And I'm not joking that once you start you won't be able to stop until you've read them all. From Darwin and Bobo, the "man-panzee," to Ahab and what hunting the great white whale does to the Pirate Captain's sanity, to Wagner trying to blacken the name of Communism, to beekeeping on St. Helena where Napoleon causes quite a ruckus, to Byron and the Pirate Captain forming a true bromance while the Pirate Captain tries to woo Mary Godwin away from Shelley, you will just pillage your way through Defoe's prose.

Yet what makes this series really unique is that, aside from them being kind of hopeless as pirates, is that the characters names aren't really names, instead being character descriptions. There's the Pirate Captain and his faithful number two, the pirate with a scarf, there's the pirate in green, the pirate with rickets, the albino pirate, Jennifer, and every one's least favorite pirate, the pirate in red. While this could be viewed as just a humorous joke at the readers expense, I mean, think how many times we as readers when faced with a new story with oodles of characters has picked up on a character trait to remember them all by? Instead I don't think it's about readers and the inability to remember names, instead I think it's a clever conceit. While yes, there is a bit of poking fun at stereotypes, I think it actually goes beyond this and is making the character archetypes. The Pirate Captain is THE DEFINITIVE pirate captain. He's the only one that matters, suck it Black Bellamy! Just like the pirate with a scarf is the perfect number two, and the pirate in red is the perfect red shirt for us to hate on. These are the lovable essence of all the pirates we wanted to sail the high seas with as a kid and therefore we gleefully go with them wherever that may be. Even if there might be ghosts. And we all know how scared pirates are of ghosts!

In fact I think that the film by Aardman Animation, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, is doing a disservice to the books. While these pirates are true characters by making them cartoonishly animated it has turned them into caricatures. This movie has lessened them. In the books they are larger than life fiendish friends, on the screen they are a kind of boring movie. Which is really odd when you consider that Gideon Defoe wrote the screenplay. When I think back to when I first saw the movie, it in no way made me want to rush out and read the books, which is such a shame. Think of all those people out in the world who are judging these books based on that movie? The movie has far more "presence" and it's overshadowing these lovely, sweet, and comical adventures. When reading the books I thought how much they reminded me of the TV series Galavant. There's an absurdity and a gallantry and a sense of humor that makes it similar to The Pirates! Plus done as live action, there's a basis in reality with having actors like the brilliant Timothy Omundson bring the characters to life. This humor works best with the dichotomy of the absurd versus the real. Which leads me into my next point, when is there going to be a live action movie with Timothy Omundson as the Pirate Captain?

As for why I chose to pick their adventure with Ahab as my favorite? Partly it's because I had yet to read them hanging out with the Romantics last year, but also it has to do with this balance of fantasy and reality that elevates the humor in these books. In taking The Pirates! and placing them in their natural setting you get to see how atrocious they actually are as pirates. The fact that when they desperately need money to pay for their new boat that actual piracy is their second to last resort shows where their priorities lie. They'd rather look at clouds and have feasts with ham. Again and again it's brought home how not at home they are on the sea. They know nothing about whales! As for mermaids... well, the Pirate Captain did date a rather attractive halibut for three months thinking the rather normal fish was something more... While Black Bellamy may be a successful pirate, he isn't that enjoyable a pirate to be around. He's too suave, too together. I actually like my pirates a little on the lost side. Perhaps that is the one thing that the movie got right? They are a band of misfits, and I love them so much for not conforming to any stereotype. They are archetypes and I love them!


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