Book Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas
by M. Kei
In the Afterword to his exciting and well-crafted debut novel (an Afterword that really ought to have come, it’s so fascinating and honest, or else an Afterword that will someday form the kernel of one hell of a sailing memoir), M. Kei expresses an entirely justified impatience with the somewhat monochrome sexuality typically presented in most seafaring fiction. Kei is a gay man and a sailor of some experience himself, and yet when he turned to most (his polite way of saying ‘all’) nautical fiction, he found a brutal disparity: either the nautical elements were just fine and every man-jack aboard was virtuously heterosexual, or else the crew were, em, fraternizing in every cable tier and the nautical elements were about as accurate as a children’s storybook. The old sailing maxim goes “Keep one hand for the ship and one for yourself” – but this state of affairs was ridiculous.
Kei wrote Pirates of the Narrow Seas in order to supply that want (and, I hope, thought up that waggish title to amuse himself), and in the process he’s created a true literary first: a gay seafaring novel that’s every bit as good with the ‘gay’ stuff as the ‘seafaring’ stuff.
The story revolves around Lieutenant Peter Thornton of the English frigate Ajax. Thornton is a handsome lad who’s attracted to other handsome lads and suffers no self-loathing on that score. He’s necessarily extremely cautious, especially around his straight, unsuspecting best friend and fellow officer Roger Perry (more waggish humor, but you quickly come to expect it from this author). One of the many refreshing choices Kei makes in his novel is to free his main character of the internal darkness that inhabits most gay characters in historical novels – Thornton is a likeable, well-adjusted man who happens to yearn for a life with another man.
He knows he can’t have it, and he throws himself into his work. Kei is predictably excellent when describing life on a wind-driven sailing vessel, and his extensive research of his 18th century period is evident (he boasts in that Afterword of catching the great C.S. Forester in an error, and his own preparations were so thorough I only caught him in one error, although it’s a doozy). The Ajax is ordered to transport his excellency Achmed bin Mamoud to any French port he chooses, and in the course of this mission, under the command of a brutal blowhard captain, Thornton encounters his share of adventure – and makes a crucial blunder with his best friend, a simple miscalculation that underscores how alone he is in the world.
That solitude begins to change when the ship rescues a stricken corsair vessel and Thornton meets a Muslim corsair captain named Tangle. To put it mildly, Tangle is of the same disposition as Thornton – only he’s never been raised to hide that disposition, as he confesses during one drunken encounter in which Thornton peevishly reminds him that he’s a married man:
“I’m a Muslim. I’m allowed more than one as long as I treat them all fairly.”
Thornton gaped, then replied, “I am not a Muslim. Besides, ’tis a sin.”
“A sin? No. A temptation, perhaps, but not a sin.”
“‘Tis a felony punished by death, sir.”
It was Tangle’s turn to gape. “Kissing is a felony? What a benighted country you come from, Peter.” His wine-soaked brain could not comprehend the enormity of such barbarism.
“Not kissing. Buggery!” Thornton was exasperated by the captain’s amorous advances and drunken stupidity.
“No worse a sin than fornication or drunkenness. I do believe the average English seaman regards those as entitlements, not reason for censure.”
“‘Tis not a crime where you come from?”
Tangle shook his head and gave him a disbelieving look. “Only a minor one. Unless you force yourself on someone, or practice it with an animal or a child. Besides, even then it takes four witnesses to prove it, which is nearly impossible.”
Thornton started in astonishment. A country where he could live without fear of being hanged? “Is there not public censure?”
“I suppose there is. I’ve never worried about it. You shouldn’t either.”
As Captain Tangle tells Thornton much later in the novel, “‘Twas not easy for me to marry. I had to learn it. My natural inclination is for my own sex.”
(As readers – especially readers of historical fiction – will rightly dread, Kei has the ’twas’-itis pretty bad. Certainly worse than anybody in the 18th century ever did.)
Pirates of the Narrow Seas has thrilling action sequences, complex, conflicted characters, and a healthy dose of contemporary realism. In its very last pages it manages to pull a happy ending out of nowhere, but even this tendency is curbed somewhat in Kei’s subsequent novels – and his strengths as a writer keep getting stronger. If well-done gay historical nautical fiction constitutes a gap in the hull of your personal reading, by all means plug that hole with this book and its sequels.