Pirates of the Narrow Sea, Book 1 – Sallee Rovers by M. Kei is well written nautical adventure fiction with a twist or two, or perhaps three.
The novel is not set during the Napoleonic wars and features, as the title suggests, Sallee Rovers, Barbary Coast corsairs, sailing from the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco. In this novel the Spanish are the villains while British are not necessarily the heroes. The corsairs are the somewhat more heroic of the novel’s contending forces. The main character is a young, British officer, Lt. Peter Thorton, who for a range of reasons, both logistical and personal, gets caught up with the corsairs and eventually joins them.
This alone is refreshing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Georgian naval fiction but at times it does seems that the literary waters can get awfully crowded. If every fictional commander who fought at the Battle of the Nile, in one novel or another, actually showed up, there would have been serious danger of collision. It is good to have new ship types and new antagonists from time to time.
The action at sea is set aboard a British frigate, a captured Spanish slave galley and a Spanish galiot, which is similar to a galley, but slightly larger. For ship wonks like myself, the scenes onboard lateen rigged galleys, galiots, and xebecks are a delight. The glimpse at these exotic craft and rigs, at least to Western eyes, was lots of fun. Likewise the chase and battle scenes between square rigged ships, galleys and galiots were also entertaining. The ability of the galleys and galiots to row straight into the wind must have maddened all the captains of square rigged ships, which decidedly could not do the same. One minor quibble I had was in terminology. Kei refers to the latteen spar as an “antenna” from Medieval Latin for a sail yard. The term seems to have largely fallen out of use by around 1650 and sounds rather strange to a modern reader’s ear.
M. Kei is a tall ship sailor himself, having served aboard the Kalmar Nyckel and on skipjacks in the Chesapeake, so the descriptions of the sailing feels fresh and real. He clearly knows of what he writes.
The other unusual element of the Sallee Rovers is the protagonist himself. Lt. Peter Thorton is the son of a minister who ran off to sea after being discovered fondling a school friend. Yes, Peter is gay, suffering from unrequited love with a fellow British officer and totally confused regarding his urges, his honor and his upbringing. If this appeals to you it is definitely a reason to read the book. If it doesn’t necessarily appeal to you, this is not necessarily the reason not to read the book. There is much to enjoy in the novel not involving sexuality. Thorton’s internal conflicts reminded me somewhat of Hornblower’s bouts of self doubt and confusion in the classic C.S. Forester series. The source of Hornblower’s concerns are quite different from young Thorton’s but many of the emotions are not.
One other unusual aspect of the novel is that, as M. Kei notes in the Afterward, the novel is a “period romance” instead of a “historical novel.” He writes, “The difference between a historical novel and period novel is crucial. In a historical novel, the author weaves fictional characters into real events and places in the past. I didn’t do that. Instead I felt free to create places and events to suit the tale while remaining faithful to the cultures of the period.”
The problem I had was that I wasn’t sure what period it was. The book begins with two British officers on the beach after a “treaty between France and England.” I initially assumed wrongly that the treaty was the Treaty of Ameins which would have put the action in the very early 1800s. It later becomes clear that the setting is well before the American Revolution. As a fan of historical novels, this bothered and confused me at times. By the end of the book I wasn’t even sure which century I was in, which as a reader struck me as an unnecessary distraction.
Overall, Sallee Rovers is an entertaining and engaging book, if somewhat on the fringe of the nautical adventure genre, not that there is anything wrong with that.