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1 February 2008

In a comment at Making Light I posted a list of the best books I read in 2007.


Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe (2007) is a fine historical time-travel story. It begins with a conversation between the narrator, a priest in a small inner-city parish somewhere in the U.S. (my guess is somewhere in the northeast), and a parishioner who asks if he remembers hearing his confession recently:

..."Then you've probably forgotten what you told me after you heard my confession, too."

I shook my head. "I recall that perfectly. I told you I'm a murderer myself."

The narrator briefly tells the man about an occasion when he once killed a fellow crewman on board a ship, but refuses to answer his detailed questions about the circumstances. He promises, however, that he would "write everything out and mail it to him when it could do no more harm".

The narrator (whose Christian name, we soon learn, is Christopher; we never learn his family name) tells how he moved to Cuba with his father shortly after the Communists fell from power, and was soon placed by his father in a school attached to a Dominican monastery. A few years later, when the monastery closed its school, he was surprised and disappointed that his father did not come for him; though he had not had a visit from him for some time. He declines to join the Dominicans as a novice, and leaves the monastery on his own; but somehow nothing seems right. There are no cars, and when he reaches what people tell him is Havana, it's way too small a town to be the city he lived in with his father when they first came to Cuba. Before long he figures out that he's slipped back in time.

After going hungry for a while and stealing food, he signs on board a merchant ship, which is later captured by pirates; he refuses to join them, but because of his slight navigational skills (he did well in math in school), he's kept a prisoner by the pirate captain rather than set adrift with the others from the merchant ship who refused to join or were not wanted. A long, complex series of events later, he becomes a pirate captain on his own account, and later allies himself with the pirate flotilla commanded by Captain Burt, the man who first captured him. Many more adventures follow before he returns to the modern world, as suddenly and inexplicably as he left it — though not to the exact same time he left.

Interleaved with his accounts of his adventures at sea in the seventeenth century, Fr. Chris tells us some, and hints at much more, about his current adventures as a parish priest; we see the kind of priest a repentant pirate captain can become, and it may make you wish your own pastor had sailed under the black flag before entering the seminary. We also get hints that he wants to return to the past, and has a plan to do so, though we don't learn what the plan is until the end. Fr. Chris's voice and his slightly rambling, digressive narrative style resemble that of the narrator of The Wizard Knight more than any of Wolfe's other first-person protagonists, but he's still a very distinct character; as are most of the people he meets in the seventeenth century, and some of those we see in the early twenty-first.

The Tor hardback edition is 320 pages, with cover painting and chapter-heading illustrations by David Grove.

I would rank this as perhaps one of the best of Wolfe's stand-alone novels, though not as good as his major epics. It will be on my Hugo nomination ballot.


The One Before by Barry Pain (1902) is a fine comic fantasy by an unjustly neglected British humorist. Ernest Saunders Barley is an amusing character to read about ("He was a man of many occupations, principally futile"), but hard to live with, especially for his servants, who wonder why his wife doesn't stand up to him more often. His life changes in a surprising way after he receives a magic ring in the post, purportedly from a friend but actually from his wife's uncle, whom he can't stand (the feeling is mutual). This ring, The One Before, will cause the wearer to assume the personality of the last person to wear it. Uncle Nathaniel can't remember who wore it last, but is pretty sure any personality change in Barley must be for the better. But Barley is annoyed by the gift and refuses to wear it; his wife takes it, with immediate results — she's not submissive or indulgent of his miserly conduct and strange hobbies anymore.

Meanwhile, the ring comes to the attention of several unsavory characters who know it will fetch a high price from parties who know of its occult properties; hijinks ensue.

The many characters are well drawn and the intricate plot moves fast. There are spiffy illustrations by Tom Browne in the original edition, reproduced in the Google Books etext. This is probably the best of Pain's books I've read yet. The New Gulliver and Other Stories (1913) is a collection of one long sf satire (including satires of sf tropes I didn't realize had been invented yet in 1913, such as food pills), several mainstream stories and several supernatural fantasies; perhaps the best besides the title story is "Zero", about a precognitive bulldog. In Robinson Crusoe's Return (1906), Crusoe returns to England in the early twentieth century, having discovered on his island a rare plant containing the Secret of Eternal Middle Age. He experiences profound culture shock at the changes in English society in two and a half centuries, besides the basic shock of returning to human society after such a long time in isolation. There are good bits here, but the humor seems forced at times; this is the only one of his books I've read that I wouldn't recommend.

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