I like pirates even though they are not really the most admirable of role models. ‘Treasure Island’ is one my favourite novels and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ one of my favourite films. Like most fans of the genre I think it is the carefree attitude mixed with the scallywag and a bit of dangerous adventure that is most appealing about it. So with that in mind I was quite looking forward to getting round to reading ‘Gentleman of Fortune’.
Set at the turn of the 17th into the 18th century it follows the adventures of one Jacob Hollum, a native of Whitby, North Yorkshire, who has a winning smile and a habit of making the wrong decision repeatedly. Returning home from a failed attempt to earn his fortune at sea Jacob drifts into becoming a smuggler and when the law catches up with him he flees to Holland to discover an extended family and a claim to aristocracy that he never knew he had. From his new home he enters into his Dutch family’s business as privateers. This is basically licensed piracy and was a common practice amongst maritime nations at war as it increased the number of warships at no extra cost to the government.
So Jacob sets off to sea again and has a few skirmishes, which are depicted by the author in a very entertaining and realistic manner. I found the sea life of the sailors far easier to understand and identify with than when I read Patrick O’ Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’. A sailor’s life was a hard one no matter in which ship he sailed and this is reflected very honestly in the book.
There is a problem, however, and that is in the language used by the characters; it is not authentic. They do not talk like people from the late 17th and early 18th century and quite a few words that are not recorded as being in use until the 19th century appear in the text. I always find this disappointing because I enjoy good dialogue but it is also a common mistake made in historical fiction, one that would should be spotted by an editor.
One of the other problems of writing a book like this is that your main character has to be something of a rogue, dangerous but not to the wrong people, a law-breaker but with a line that he will not cross. He or she should have a certain charm, a way of winning over the reader so that they can forgive them their sins and care enough to want to see them get to the end of the adventure in one piece. I am not sure that Jacob Hollum is one of those characters. He lacks Captain Jack Sparrow’s charisma, or Long John Silver’s knowledge of the world; his white teeth seem to be his main charm! When Jacob commits a reprehensible crime, no matter what the justification, it is difficult to view him in the same way again as before the event took place; I kind of stopped caring about him. However, Nick Smith is planning a series of books so there is time and place for Jacob Hollum to grow and perhaps grow on me again.
In conclusion I did enjoy ‘Gentleman of Fortune’, the fact that a large proportion of the story takes place in the part of the country where I live was always going to be an attraction, and it moves a long at a good pace. The sea battles are very entertaining and demonstrate a genuine skill by the author that could be further refined by some attention to detail in respect of vocabulary and the development of a rogue’s character.