From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe, The Devil You Know by Mike Carey

Tor, 320 pages, $24.95

While reading this enchanting novel from fantasy master Gene Wolfe, you may get the feeling the author had one heck of a fine time writing it. Nearly as much fun, perhaps, as you will have reading it. Pirate Freedom offers a realistic portrayal of Caribbean piracy while provides plenty of swashbuckling adventure and romance. The tale is told by Father Chris, a twenty-eight-year-old inner city Catholic priest in a near-future United States. A sizable fellow, originally from New Jersey, he can handle any tough guy, but he has a secret past . . . and we do mean past . . . as a late-17th/early-18th century pirate. Pirate Freedom is supposedly a memoir/confession of this past. With a tip of the fantastic hat to Jack Finney’s classic Time and Again, Chris somehow winds up three hundred years back in time in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Aided by his native English, flawless Spanish, and smattering of French, Chris quickly falls into piracy and encounters every imaginable pirate theme, but none of it is cliché. There are dastardly villains, duels, ship capturing, treachery, treasure, storms, a haunted ship, mutiny, exotic natives, the love of a feisty woman, gallons of blood, and plenty (but not too much) interesting sailing and arms lore. Even minor characters are richly portrayed and those who play a larger role are superbly written. Their voices are not only distinct, they are enhanced by a variety of languages.Like many Wolvian heroes, young Chris is somewhat naive; unlike them, his modern language and viewpoint add to the tale he is telling. So does an early upbringing by a “wiseguy” father that allows him, despite a profound faith, to understand the more ruthless ways of the world. Pirate Freedom may not be one of Wolfe’s grandest novels, but it is far from trivial and immensely enjoyable. (ISBN: 9780765318787)

Grand Central Publishing, 416 pages, $24.99

Carey’s urban fantasy series starter (books two and three are already out in the UK) is set in an alternative near-future London. In this reality, “a few years” before the millennium, the dead came back — at least some of them did. London, being a long-inhabited locale, has a good-sized population of the lively dead: ghosts, zombies, and a type of were-creature. Narrator Felix (Fix) Castor is a freelance exorcist, a ghostbuster who sends troublesome dead to . . . somewhere . . . using music, usually piped on a tin whistle. Castor is called in by the administrator of a documentary archive to deal with a ghost that, at first, was merely a presence, but has now started attacking employees. Investigating why the ghost is haunting the building brings him in contact with an unsavory underworld criminal and his massive were-henchman, a less than honorable fellow-exorcist, and a beautiful but deadly succubus.Castor is an engaging character. A combination of noirish detective, John Constantine, various other supernatural detective-fighters, Castor is still unique. The emotionally troubled, constantly impoverished, mordantly witty, reluctant hero with questions about his calling and mistakes in his past is distinctly British and that adds to his rough charm. He lives in a dark world that the reader is only beginning to glimpse by the end of the novel.Although Carey is a veteran graphic-story/comics writer, he does exhibit a few debut novelist flaws: an over-long beginning with Castor playing magician at a nasty child’s birthday party doesn’t set the right tone to start and the plot suffers from occasional padding. None of this detracts from an entertaining read that will not only keep you turning its pages but whet your appetite for the next volume. (Perhaps enough to tempt you into ordering the British editions rather than waiting for the U.S. versions.) (ISBN: 9780446580304)

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