Author: Michael Chrichton
Series: Stand Alone
Publication Date: 2009
“The Caribbean 1665. A remote colony of the English Crown, the island of Jamaica holds out against the vast supremacy of the Spanish empire. Port Royal, its capital, is a cutthroat town of taverns, grog shops, and bawdy houses. In this steamy climate there’s a living to be made, a living that can end swiftly by disease – or by dagger. For Captain Charles Hunter, gold in Spanish hands is gold for the taking, and the law of the land rests with those ruthless enough to make it.”
I picked up Pirate Latitudes from my local library when preparing for our recent trip to Jamaica. I was looking for a fun page turning beach read set in the Caribbean in general or Jamaica specifically. I’d read Jurassic Park and Rising Sun back in high school (way back in the 90’s) but nothing by Crichton since. I really enjoyed those books then and figured this one would be cool. I would read it while sitting on the beach sipping a rum drink and bask in all the atmosphere. We were even staying at a resort on a bay where the pirate Calico Jack was supposedly captured. I mean c’mon pirates (check), Jamaica (check), rum drinks (check)! This had everything going its way. To add to the interest factor It turns out Pirate Latitudes was published posthumously in 2009. Supposedly after Crichton died in 2008 an assistant found the manuscript on one of his computers.
As you might could tell I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I tried to like it. But in the end I just couldn’t. There was a reason Crichton hadn’t published Pirate Latitudes yet and it shows. I think he knew it and that’s why he hadn’t submitted it yet.
This may be a short review (short for me) and I’m not gonna follow my usual format. And there are some minor spoilers.
The basic premise of the story was fine. Captain Hunter, upon learning of a Spanish treasure galleon stuck in a Spanish port sets off with a crew of privateers to capture it and return to Port Royal. Along the way they have to battle the Spanish army and navy, defeat a bloodthirsty Spanish captain, survive a hurricane, contend with island natives, a giant kraken, and English politics in Port Royal where a new magistrate wants to put an end to privateering which he sees as nothing short of piracy itself. Like I said the premise was fine. It was the execution that failed.
First, there was the structure of the narrative itself. Early on the big baddy is set-up to be the Spanish captain Cazalla. The first half of the book is spent building him up to be this ruthless, cunning, bloodthirsty guy and he’s set to be the big boss at the climax that has to be defeated, probably in some epic sea battle with pitching decks and slashing swords. Nope. He’s dispatched just about the midpoint of the narrative. And no it’s not in a sea battle. It’s so abrupt in fact you’re left sitting in your beach lounger going WTF!?! Really? He’s really dead? Nah he’s not dead. Really? OK…I’ll keep reading cuz he’s bound to come back. But no. He doesn’t. Carry on.
What comes next is a series of “bosses” that have to be defeated once Captain Hunter and his crew capture the galleon. First is Cazalla’s lieutenant who chases after them in Cazalla’s ship. Then there’s a hurricane to survive. Then the island natives. Then a kraken. Then the magistrates in Port Royal. It’s almost like Odysseus wandering lost after the battle of Troy until he finally makes it home and has to defeat his wife’s suitors. Except this isn’t as good a story as the Odyssey. And what we get are a series of small climaxes one after another, none of which delivers the big payoff you want at the end of the book.
While you’re reading all these anti-climaxes you also start to notice the second half of the book, and especially the last third just seem rushed and unfinished. The closer to the end you get the more pronounced this feeling. Each chapter starts to lose depth. There’s just no meat to them. It’s hard to describe except to say that it felt like Crichton and written a first draft (or maybe second or third) but hadn’t really finished fleshing out the last part of the book. The last few chapters were really weak in this regard. They were simple narrative, almost like an outline that had the first draft or two of narrative draped on it but that’s it.
Then there are the characters. Most of the characters were underdeveloped but in a story like this I might let that slide because I’m in it for the adventure elements. No, what really irritated me were how the female characters were written. None of the female characters save maybe one served a function other than as a sexual object. I mean the female characters do other things, one for instance acts as a spy and courier, but she does so using sex as the means by which she does it. There aren’t many female characters in the book, but all of them are written with the purpose of sexual gratification with or by a male character as their primary reason for being in the novel. Otherwise they could have been replaced by a different male character. The one female I said who maybe doesn’t fit this description is an LGBTQ character (props to Crichton I suppose for adding an LGBTQ character) whose sex is female but gender is uncertain. This character has abilities that really do help the crew, but even she uses her sex (by barring her breasts to surprise her enemy) in ways that male characters don’t. If she were the only example of this it might be fine, but with all the other examples it points to something else. Lazy writing at best, and outdated patriarchal notions of what makes good fiction.
Then…then there’s the thing that really pissed me off. Then there was the rape scene. I fall into the category of readers who says if you’re going to include a rape scene it better damn well be necessary to the story. And if you’re not sure then it isn’t necessary. Let me tell, you the outcome of this scene and more specifically the events that follow could have come about five different ways without it being written this way. I know somebody’s gonna argue, “hey your subject matter is pirates…they were not pleasant people…this kind of thing happened.” Shut-up, no. There are lots of ways to handle this kind of scene differently and a good writer can come up with one. And it wasn’t a pirate that did it. Just no. This came at the very end of the book or else I might have DNF’d it.
Anyway, I wanted to like this book. But I just couldn’t. It gets the rating I gave it because a one star for me is a DNF and I finished the thing. This rating is for books I didn’t like.