Friday, July 29, 2011

Sea Witch by Helen Hollick

The Time : The Golden Age of Piracy - 1716.

The Place : The Pirate Round - from the South African Coast to the sun drenched Islands of the Caribbean.

Escaping the bullying of his elder half brother, from the age of fifteen Jesamiah Acorne has been a pirate with only two loves - his ship and his freedom. But his life is to change when he and his crewmates unsuccessfully attack a merchant ship off the coast of South Africa.

He is to meet Tiola Oldstagh an insignificant girl, or so he assumes - until she rescues him from a vicious attack, and almost certain death, by pirate hunters. And then he discovers what she reallyis; a healer, a midwife - and a white witch. Her name, an anagram of "all that is good." Tiola and Jesamiah become lovers, but the wealthy Stefan van Overstratten, a Cape Town Dutchman, also wants Tiola as his wife and Jesamiah's jealous brother, Phillipe Mereno, is determined to seek revenge for resentments of the past, a stolen ship and the insult of being cuckolded in his own home.

When the call of the sea and an opportunity to commandeer a beautiful ship - the Sea Witch - is put in Jesamiah's path he must make a choice between his life as a pirate or his love for Tiola. He wants both, but Mereno and van Overstratten want him dead.

In trouble, imprisoned in the darkness and stench that is the lowest part of his brother's ship, can Tiola with her gift of Craft, and the aid of his loyal crew, save him?

Using all her skills Tiola must conjure up a wind to rescue her lover, but first she must brave the darkness of the ocean depths and confront the supernatural being, Tethys, the Spirit of the Sea, an elemental who will stop at nothing to claim Jesamiah Acorne's soul and bones as a trophy.
The Golden Age of Piracy lasted just under 50 years in the late 17th/early 18th century. It is a time that is hard for a modern reader to imagine - the news is months old when you first hear it, if you leave your home country there is every likelihood that you will never see it again, no mobile phones, electricity etc. Luckily, the modern reader can immerse themselves in the imagined world of books to get just a small taste of what life might have been like three hundred years ago.

Captain Jesamiah Acorne started life in a semi-respectable family - his father was a plantation owner in the Carolinas - but when his parents die, he is forced to flee from the sadistic older brother who has hated Jesamiah from the first time he saw him as a young child. Luckily for Jesamiah, he has found a natural home on the bridge of a ship, a pirate ship to be more precise. When we first meet Jesamiah, he and his crew are getting ready to board a ship with a view to clearing it of all of its cargo.

Little does he know that on the ship that he is aiming to plunder is Tiola Oldstagh, a young girl with knowledge much older than her true age because she is a white witch. Tiola is heading for a new life in South Africa, escaping from the legacy of a tragic end to her parent's lives. With her skills in midwifery and medicine, Tiola is bound to find a welcome awaiting her in her new home, accompanied by her companion Jenna. What Tiola knows for sure is that her destiny is bound tightly to that of Jesamiah Acorne even though he has no clue who she is, or even that she exists at their first meeting.

Click on the image to visit more stops on the tour
There are several factors that good pirate stories need - adventure, danger, lots of rum - and this book has it in spades. This book is a heady mix of history, adventure, romance and fantasy.

It is however not all plain sailing. Where the book was strongest was in the imagining of the pirate life. Jesamiah is no Captain Jack Sparrow blithely careening from disaster to disaster and still managing to remain unharmed. Jesamiah faces very real consequences for is actions - injuries, arrest and more. I also enjoyed the flavour of the towns that are visited throughout the course of the book. Places like Nassau and Cape Town and the coast of Madagascar. I also enjoyed a cameo appearance by William Dampier - a man who spent some time exploring the Australian coastline before the continent was properly claimed as an English possessoin.

What didn't work so well for me were the mystical elements - the craft that Tiola uses throughout the book, and most particularly the addition of Tethys to the storytelling. She is the sea and she demands payment from those who dare disturb her.

It feels as though I have been reading Helen Hollick's books for a very long time, but  a quick look at my handy spreadsheet tells me that I first encountered her books only just over two years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed her Arthurian Pendragon's Banner trilogy and also A Hollow Crown about Emma, queen of England in the time before William Conqueror invaded England. Whilst I liked the characters of Jesamiah and will eventually read more of their adventures, I think I prefer the more straight down the line historical fiction that the author does so well.

There are two more books already published in this series, Bring it Close and Pirate Code, and another book on the way soon called Ripples in the Sand.

Check back tomorrow for a guest post from Helen and an international giveaway!

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