No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 16, 2007

#30: The Wave Runners -- Kai Meyer

Jolly ran across the ocean, striding freely. Her bare feet only just dipped into the water.

It's 1706, in the tropical waters and jungly islands of the Caribbean. This is a world not only of bloodthirsty (though also some well-mannered) pirates and freebooters, but of the supernatural: and from that very first line, whereJolly's introduced as something rich and strange, the magic is present in every dimension of the tale.

It would be remiss of me to blurb this book as Pirates of the Caribbean meets China MiƩville's The Scar, so I won't. But it is.

The Wave Runners, first in a trilogy, contains the ingredients for a classic fantasy adventure -- a dashing pirate captain, somewhat down on his luck; a Pirate Princess who looks just like a Mary-Sue but,cheeringly, picks her nose; a dreadlocked teenage stowaway blessed with good luck and a gift for fencing; a Mysterious Elder with one eye and two coal-black parrots, Hugh and Moe; a ship crewed by ghosts; a dog-headed man; an Oracle of questionable provenance; the imminent destruction of life as we know it; strong spirits; explosions; creepy-crawlies.

And that's without mention of the two protagonists, Jolly (named after the Jolly Roger, a namesake she's determined to live up to) andMunk. Jolly was bought in the Tortuga slave market and raised by pirates; Munk has lived his fourteen years quietly on a small island somewhere off the main seaways of the Caribbean. That quiet life, naturally, comes to an abrupt end when Jolly turns up, determined to wreak vengeance on those who've sunk the only home she's ever known.

Jolly's a polliwiggle -- hence the walking, running, on water, and a decided aversion to spending very long on land -- and her gift (magically bestowed only on children born just after the Port Royal earthquake of 1692) may yet be the salvation of all who dwell upon dry land. For the Ghost Trader (he of the single eye and Gothic parrots) tells of the MareTenebrosum , 'a sea that knows no bounds, where there is no land': freak storms and shipwrecks are signs of this world breaking through into our own, and now thepowers of the Mare Tenebrosum want to conquer land, and have conjured a Maelstrom through which to make their entrance ...

It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic fantasy (take one setting, spice with supernatural, add Archetypal Characters at regular intervals, separate out one set of protagonists at end of book one ...) if it lacked the sheer enjoyment that carries the plot along, the pacey writing and confident characterisation, the eldritch nastiness of the Bad Things and the sordidness of the more human villains. The reader isn't kept entirely in the dark; secrets are revealed and discoveries made, and the complex plot is sturdy enough to admit small mysteries and at least one question that I'm amazed Jolly hasn't asked herself. There's a cliffhanger ending to keep us all waiting for the second book, due this summer, and the third.

A note on the language: I couldn't believe this was a translation! All too often I find a novel translated so clumsily that any sane publisher would surely reject the translation if it were submitted as an original work. Certainly not the case here! Though there was one translation that really niggled, perhaps because the rest was so fluent: 'cyclone'. Why not 'hurricane'? I thought (andWikipedia / BBC site confirm) that 'cyclone' was a local name (Indian Ocean, apparently also West Pacific) for hurricane, and the latter term is more familiarly used forbiiiig Caribbean storms. Also, according to Wikipedia, 'cyclone' did not come into use until 1845. But I am not going to nit-pick about anachronology when there is so much else going on!)

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