Having previously read and reviewed Sea Witch by Helen Hollick, I was looking forward to checking out its sequel, Pirate Code, which seems to begin mere moments after Sea Witch concluded. We immediately join up with the tale’s protagonists, pirate Jesemiah Acorne and his – well, girlfriend I suppose (being as they’re so devoted to one another, girlfriend seems too weak a term. But since she’s married to another, she really can’t be otherwise), the witch Tiola. Tiola and Jesemiah are well occupied dealing with the difficulties of Tiola’s husband, who refuses to grant a divorce – but this distraction is soon eclipsed by the larger issue of England going to war with Spain, followed by Governor Woodes Rogers’ revocation of pirate amnesties for the purpose of pressing all able seamen into service.
Acorne, however, is more than a mere able seaman, and is therefore manipulated into a more demanding and somewhat convoluted secret mission that takes him to Spanish Jamaica where he must coordinate with an English agent while at the same time claim cargo from a plantation – formerly held by his family but more recently by his girlfriend’s husband – for the purpose of convincing said husband to grant Tiola her freedom. The journey involves many elements of intrigue and danger, but it also doesn’t really go anywhere in the end. For all the travels, excursions, and plot twists, very little is ultimately accomplished – making Pirate Code something of a middle story in a larger saga. It seems most of the character development has already occurred in the previous book. And while many of Pirate Code’s characters and events might lead to bigger things in future novels, they seem to serve little role here aside from elaborate introduction.
On their own the above issues could be easily overcome to make for a decent pirate “pulp” novel – a fun swashbuckler with just enough sex to add spice. Which is more or less what this is – a decent pulp novel. But it does suffer one more pervasive flaw that regrettably distracts from the story, and that is the personification of Jesemiah Acorne himself.
Jesemiah is nearly perfect, it seems. He’s a brilliant sailor who quickly commands the respect of all around him. His crew is deeply devoted, and most of them would follow him to the ends of the earth. He’s a master strategist and tactician, has a way with animals, and has an open mind and deep humanity that are in stark contrast to most every other male mentioned (most of whom seem to be weak-willed and selfish, or just plain bulbous and disgusting.)
Acorne is a pirate god among men, clearly. And what’s more, he’s also a hit with the ladies. Jesemiah Acorne is, as would be expected, loved by Tiola. But he’s also loved by Tethys, the sea goddess, and her daughter Rain. He’s further loved (or at least desired) by women of all classes that he meets during his exploits. During a time of absence, it’s even implied that his very ship aches for his return. Female loins throughout the Caribbean seem to ignite at his mere presence, despite his bearded, unwashed, Sparrow-esque pirate appearance (and therefore, not likely a huge draw to any woman of the time, save the very low class or those looking to score a coin or two for their troubles.) Acorne’s greatness makes him more a character of fantasy than a believably historical adventure hero, and puts him rather at odds with the general gritty tone of the story.
I enjoyed Sea Witch. I did not enjoy Pirate Code nearly as much. Hollick’s writing remains strong and descriptive. Her Caribbean is an exciting one, full of corrupt governments, conniving whores, brutal pirates, and unforgiving seas. But her clear love of Jesemiah Acorne has led her to hold him up as a shining heroic and romantic beacon in this otherwise bleak, harsh environment. It’s a role that doesn’t well suit him, and any readers that aren’t enraptured by Jesemiah’s many, many admirable qualities may find this book a less fulfilling read than was its predecessor.