It’s hard not to approach a Gene Wolfe novel with high expectations. After all, the man is responsible for some of the most brilliantly mind-bending science fiction and fantasy written in the last few decades. Such high expectations can make it hard to write an objective review (if such a thing is even possible) when the new book in question is quite good but just doesn’t blow you away like, say, his Book of the New Sun or The Wizard Knight. Make no mistake: Pirate Freedom is a great piece of fiction, but in terms of Gene Wolfe’s body of work, it just doesn’t rank as high as I’d hoped.
Our narrator, Chris, is an American who, as a boy, moves to Cuba with his father and is enrolled in a religious boarding school. Eventually he becomes a novice in the monastery, but as time passes, he realizes that he is not cut out for the life of a monk. When he leaves the monastery, he gradually becomes aware that Havana looks quite different from when he last saw it: somehow, he has been transported to the 17th century. To earn some money, he signs on as a sailor, and before long, he becomes a pirate, prowling the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy…
As is often the case in Gene Wolfe novels, the protagonist narrates the main events from a later stage in life, and there are lots of interesting connections and contrasts between the framing story and the meat of the novel. In this case, adult Chris is now a Catholic priest, back in modern times and reminiscing about his time as a pirate. As a result, Pirate Freedom frequently deals with questions of morality. After all, Chris-the-pirate swings from being ruthless to compassionate: when he just exits the monastery, he feels bad about stealing some bread, but eventually he becomes a feared pirate, with all the raiding and stealing that entails. By the end of the novel, we’ve seen him risk himself to free slaves, but Chris also seems to feel that torturing someone for gold is more justified than torturing for sport. This tension, between Chris as a Catholic priest and Chris as a feared pirate, is the most interesting aspect of Pirate Freedom.
Most of the novel, however, focuses on the actual adventures of Chris and his band of pirates in the second half of the 17th century, looting and raiding their way across the Caribbean. Gene Wolfe is obviously very familiar with the historical period and with sailing terminology, resulting in a story that feels much more authentic than your average Pirates of the Caribbean-type yarn. However, it’s hard be to completely immersed in the (occasionally very exciting) pirate adventures because “modern Chris,” the Catholic priest, tells his story in the most straightforward, plain-spoken way possible, and frequently interrupts the story to relate events of his current life, e.g. his work at the church or the community center. While this highlights the moral ambiguity of the main character, it also takes away from the excitement of the pirate story — which takes up most of the novel.
As so often with Gene Wolfe, the narrator is writing the story for himself, not for the reader, and as a result he doesn’t always bother to explain those things that are obvious to him — such as his full name, his origins, his environment, or even his true emotions. As a result, the reader has to puzzle the picture together from details scattered throughout the text. There are a few almost casual references that seem to indicate that the framing story is set in the near future, or maybe even in a parallel dimension, on an Earth that’s slightly different from ours. For example, Chris briefly mentions that he was “genetically engineered” to be tall, and he occasionally refers to monorail transportation that doesn’t seem to fit into our current time — and that’s not even mentioning Cuba’s political situation in the book. It’s hard to shake the idea that the story of “modern Chris” might be just as interesting as his pirate adventures, but because Chris wants to talk about his time as a pirate, we’ll never know. As a matter of fact, this involuntary self-editing also pops up when Chris is relating his exploits as a pirate: some events are only hinted at, because he is embarrassed by them, or doesn’t feel like describing them, or because he just doesn’t think they need to be explained further. The occasional “That’s all I’m going to write about that” hides what could be some of the most gripping material in his story.
A final aspect of Pirate Freedom that needs to be highlighted is the religious one. One of the reasons why I’ve always admired Gene Wolfe tremendously is his ability to infuse his religious beliefs into his stories in a tasteful but highly meaningful way, without becoming preachy or offensive to non-religious readers. Because his main character is a Catholic priest, you’d expect religion as a theme to pop up again in Pirate Freedom — and you’d be correct, because there are many religious references and symbols to be found throughout the novel, some more obvious than others. One of the strongest themes running through the novel is that of absolution and forgiveness, with Chris reinstating the practice of taking confession in his church, occasionally rationalizing his own sins away, and dealing with the betrayals and mistakes of his companions. Taking things a step further, the entire novel could possibly be seen as a confession, with Chris seeking absolution by recounting his past misdeeds.
Related to these religious themes, there’s one brief section focusing on abuse by Catholic priests that may cross the line for many people: Chris seems to feel that boys should be able to fight so they can protect themselves from being molested by priests and so they can defend girls. Or as Chris writes:
The boys were the victims of those priests, I am not arguing they were not. But those priests were the victims of the people who had taught the boys that even a little bit of violence is the worst thing in the world. The priests had only one victim, or that is how it seems to me. Those people had two, because the priest was another.
Whether this is Gene Wolfe’s opinion or just something Chris feels (which would be marginally more understandable, given his background and what happens to him early on in his sailing career), it still left a sour taste in my mouth.
In the end, Pirate Freedom is another solid and intriguing novel by Gene Wolfe, and a book you’re guaranteed to think about for a long time after turning the final page — especially because the end provides a mind-bending twist, which admittedly is almost par for the course with this author. While Wolfe deftly uses his narrator to add several meaningful layers to the story, making this much more than just another pirate novel, it’s a technique I found admirable more than enjoyable. Still, despite occasionally feeling annoyed while I was reading the book, I kept going back to it, pondering the many subtleties and their implications that only hit me days after I finished reading. When weighed against the rest of Gene Wolfe’s works, I doubt many people will consider this one of his strongest novels, but nevertheless it’s still a unique, thought-provoking and elegantly written story. Recommended for Gene Wolfe fans (and pirate enthusiasts of course), but if you’re new to this author, try The Book of the New Sun or The Wizard Knight.