Book Review: Pirate Lattitudes (Michael Crichton)

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“A fun read, but not his best.” – me, post-book

TL;DR – Most of the story was really good, and with a few small changes could have been amazing. Still recommended.



Why I read it…

My brother recommended this to me. We are both big fans of pirates (both fact and fiction), always have been. He listened to the audio book and couldn’t recommend it highly enough – “A Book recommended by a friend/family” was a category in my reading challenge conveniently too. Also I like Crichton’s work, so I thought it had a lot going for it.

The Story…

Port Royal is either a paradise or a scum hole, depending on your outlook. One of the few English colonies in the midst of Spanish territories, it’s economy relies on the work of privateers – sort of ‘legal’ pirates – to bring home the bacon.

Captain Hunter is one such Privateer. Hunter, and a band of picked men set out upon a dangerous quest – to raid the stronghold of Matanceros and make off with a Spanish treasure ship. Only one crew ever attempted a raid on Matanceros, and only one man returned! The risk is great – many would call it suicide – but the reward is greater…

Meanwhile, Robert Hacklett, a devious and ambitious young man, seeks to clean up the streets of Port Royal and make it a respectable town, with disastrous results.

Please note: This book was apparently found as a full manuscript and published post-posthumously, so it is difficult to gauge how polished and finished it really is.

What I liked…

I freely admit that anything to do with pirates is likely to land more favourably with me than most other themes – I really love pirates. The book didn’t disappoint in that regard. Crichton adds lots of little details, such as pirate superstitions, codes and rules and explanations about how a ship was organised and run – this really helps flesh out the world and make it interesting and engaging. It’s not so heavy on details that it would be boring for people who weren’t that interested, but it has enough to keep pirate fans happy.

I liked the plot for the most part. The daring raid, the sea battles and the political machinations of Hacklett all mixed together to make an exciting narrative. I was really hooked into the story within a few chapters, and my interest was maintained the whole way through.

I like the fact that Crichton has written his pirate world with a leaning towards reality. The pirates are presented in all their ugly glory – violent, scheming and often unpleasant. That said, the characters are not so made to be so abhorrent that you find yourself unable to root for them entirely.

There is some diversity among the characters which is probably closer to the reality of a pirate crew than the usual white-washed crews we are usually exposed to. This is both a strength and a significant issue, but more on that in a minute.

What I disliked…

I struggled to give this book a rating at first – and I admit I’m still not 100% sure I got it right. 3.5 buttons seems to suggest the book was terrible, which it most definitely wasn’t. It did, however, have a few things that really got to me and ultimately caused me to slash the rating quite drastically.

Trigger Warning – R*pe mention, racist content

As I said above, the pirates in this book are not presented as the dashing heroes we often find in movies – they are unpleasant and at least fairly close to what you would expect form actually pirates. In fact it’s not just the pirates – everyone in this book is pretty unpleasant. As such, it’s not hugely surprising that pirates (and anybody else apparently) might not be above a bit of rape. You definitely could write a pirate story where nobody gets raped, but that probably wouldn’t be considered ‘gritty’ enough.

The rape thing, which to my best recollection comes up three, maybe four times is unpleasant and seems unnecessary – even if it is realistic. That said, I’m no stranger to unpleasant material in books and it wouldn’t kick a whole button and a half of the rating on its own. No, the real kicker in this was the fact that for reasons known only to himself, Crichton went to great pains to point out that the most raped person in the book is a child of 14 or 15. What’s worse is the fact that he presents it as totally consensual…and I know, ‘sign of the times’ and all that but there was literally no reason what-so-ever for his to keep mentioning that this girl was a child. The characters acknowledge she is a child, and even call her a child. It’s super skeevy and massively unpleasant to read. I’m not trying to suggest that the rape of an adult is somehow better or more acceptable, but I can’t think of a way to end this sentence.

Moving away from that and onto some of the characters. I said earlier that the crew had some diversity. I also said this was a problem. There are two characters I have in mind specifically.

  1. Don Diego a.k.a. Black Eye a.k.a. the Jew
  2. Bassa a.k.a. The Moor

Don Diego, got his nickname for being Jewish. Bassa, we are told, somehow ended up with the nickname, despite “not beeing Moorish” (I believe the book says he is Nubian, but don’t quote me on it), and nobody knows how he ended up with it – well it’s obvious how he got it, someone saw a black man and called him a Moor.

Thing is, I understand why he mentions the nicknames – they might be unpleasant but it does flesh out the characters slightly and it’s believable. Unnecessary, but believable. This was made more annoying in the epilogue by suggesting that the characters were real people – which would have explained why you would mention these nicknames in the first place, but it turns out they are all fiction.

A big problem is the fact that despite giving these characters actual human names, he keeps referring to them by these racial epithets. It’s not even when the characters speak. The characters called Don Diego Don Diego. Crichton as narrator calls him ‘the Jew’. It is massively jarring because there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. Sometimes he even uses both the name and the racial epithet at the same time – it’s just mindless. So points lost for that.

Triggers end.

Finally, there are a couple of appearances of the Kraken. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Kraken. The Kraken is cool. But it just seemed out of place. The book felt realistic – like real life, and I enjoyed that. The first time it appears, you could have assumed it was a whale or something as it appeared briefly and had ‘a suspicion of tentacles’ or some such. The second time it was glowing green and attacked the ship, but it came right out of left field and through a random element of fantasy into what had previously been a gritty, realistic pirate story. It was just weird.

Final thoughts…

I liked the story. I wanted to love it.

As noted above, this book was printed posthumously and discovered as a ‘complete manuscript’. Perhaps Crichton intended to work on it some more – there are a couple of places where the transition between elements is a bit janky, and it feels unfinished at times. That said, you can hardly blame the man for unfortunately dying before publication so I wasn’t about to dock points for it.

It does seem unlikely, however, that the issues I highlighted above would have been removed had the book been published within Crichton’s lifetime.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes gritty historical fiction. If you don’t like grit and realism to the point of fault, don’t bother with it.

Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!