31 July, 2011

Bring It Close, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Silverwood Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-906236-62-5. 385 pages. Advance review copy provided as PDF by publisher.

Bring It Close is the third in the Jesamiah Acorne pirate series, following Sea Witch (reviewed here a few years ago) and Pirate Code. Set in October-November 1718, mainly on the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia in what is now the US, Bring It Close features the notorious historical pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, as a main character. Other secondary characters such as the governors of North Carolina and Virginia, Blackbeard’s crew and the British naval lieutenant Robert Maynard are also historical figures. The two central characters, pirate captain Jesamiah Acorne and white witch Tiola, are fictional.

Captain Jesamiah Acorne has inherited his family’s tobacco plantation, accepted a government amnesty and, in theory, retired from piracy. Bored and still troubled by questions about his father and his family’s past, he has a one-night stand with an old flame, causing his lover, the midwife and white witch Tiola Oldstagh, to quarrel with him and depart to attend a difficult birth. The plantation turns out to be run down to the point of bankruptcy, his half-brother’s widow is disputing the inheritance, the fearsome pirate Blackbeard still wants revenge on Jesamiah for sinking his ship, and Jesamiah’s dead father is trying to contact him from the world of the dead. Jesamiah finds himself arrested for piracy – ironically, this time he is innocent of the charge – and sentenced to hang. If he is to save his life, clear his name and be reunited with his beloved Tiola, he will have to hunt down and kill Blackbeard. But, unknown to Jesamiah, Blackbeard has sold his soul to the Dark Power, the implacable enemy of Tiola and the power she represents, and cannot be killed …

Bring It Close is a fantasy set against the swashbuckling historical background of piracy in the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America. Central to the novel is a supernatural struggle between the powers of Good (the Immortals of Light, the Old Ones of Wisdom), represented by Tiola, and Evil (the Dark Power, the Malevolence), represented by Blackbeard. Attempts by governments to stamp out piracy, and the antagonism between Jesamiah and Blackbeard, are components of this larger conflict. The magic forces are real within the world of the novel, not beliefs held by the characters. Here Blackbeard is, or was, a human who has sold his soul to the devil and is now possessed by the Dark Power. Tiola is a non-human immortal being, one of the Immortals of Light, who has taken human shape. Having fallen in love with a human, Jesamiah Acorne, she can communicate with him by telepathy and has supernatural powers over earth, air, fire and water (but not salt water). However, Immortals of Light are forbidden to kill, and so Tiola cannot use her power to destroy Blackbeard. Indeed, she has to take great care to keep her identity secret from the Dark Power inhabiting Blackbeard’s body, since the Dark Power could harm her and those she cares for. As Blackbeard is protected from death by the Dark Power, and as Tiola is not permitted to use her opposing power to kill, the supernatural battle is at something of an impasse, and is maintained as a conflict throughout the book.

As well as the magical conflict, there is no shortage of earthly action, from tavern brawls to naval battles, blackmail, political double-dealing and a harrowing childbirth scene. Blackbeard is the major historical figure, and according to the author’s note, “many of Blackbeard’s scenes happened – but without Jesamiah and Tiola of course”. The historical Blackbeard came to fame as an adult and not much is known of his early life, giving the author scope to weave him into the lives of the fictional characters and to develop unexpected connections between them.

As a character, Blackbeard in the novel is pure evil, as one might expect from a pirate who has literally sold his soul to the devil. Jesamiah is still much as I remember him from Sea Witch - his liking for drink and women, not to mention his complete lack of tact and his talent for making enemies, get him into trouble on a regular basis, and he has to rely on his resourcefulness, quick wits and ability to lie through his teeth to get himself out of it again. Fans of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow will probably also take a liking to Jesamiah Acorne. Jesamiah’s painful childhood, stormy family history and troubled relationship with his dead father thread through the narrative, as do the dark memories borne by his father’s ghost. Some of this complicated family history seems to have featured in the second book in the series, Pirate Code, but I had no difficulty following the narrative even though I haven’t read Pirate Code. So although Bring It Close is the third in a series, it can be read as a stand-alone.

A useful Author’s Note explains some of the historical events underlying the novel, and sets out the reasoning behind some of the fictional additions. There is also a glossary of nautical terms and a diagram of a ship to help readers unfamiliar with seafaring terminology.

Swashbuckling fantasy set on the coasts of colonial Virginia and North Carolina, featuring the dashing fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne and the historical pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.


Helen Hollick said...

Thank you Carla for such a nice review. As an author, it is often hard to know whether a book in a series makes sense to readers who have not read previous adventures. Is there enough backstory to cover what has previously happened - is there too much? Is this a stand-alone story or have the previous books got to be read? I was, therefore, very grateful to Carla for her opinion on this one - and phew, I seem to have achieved a good balance.

Carla said...

Glad you liked the review! Yes, I thought it worked well as a stand-alone.