Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 1 - We're on a Boat

What can we accomplish in six pages?  For that matter, what can we do in a few sentences?

The marlinespike was inoffensive enough.  In capable hands it might possibly have laid a man out.  But Tom Bristol had shown few signs of wanting to lay anyone out, and if he had, it was certain that he would not have used a short piece of wood to that purpose.  And yet the marlinespike was to be Tom Bristol's passport to piracy.

So let's see - the very second word is an obscure and archaic nautical term that the reader will have to look up in a footnote or glossary, not a great start.  We've got a good action hero name for our main character, Tom Bristol, up there with Jack London, Alvin York, or Melvin Gloucestershire.  We establish that he's not normally a violent sort, but that he's not careless when he decides to use violence, and ultimately will become a pirate.  Not too shabby.

He was working in the crosstress of the mizzentop, hanging on with his toes far above a restless deck, using the spike to splice a length of line which had parted in the storm just past.

Aaaand that's how you negate any points earned from a decent opening, with another trip to the glossary.  Did Hubbard expect his audience to know this terminology off the top of their head, or was he trying to show off?

The next few brief paragraphs set the scene: the calm blue waters of the Caribbean with the mountains of St. Kitts visible to the west.  Bristol is aboard the HMS Terror, a heavily-armed man-o'-war ferrying the Lord High Governor of Nevis to his island so he can marry a Lady Jane Campbell, as Governors and Ladies do.  As for himself, Bristol has "a certain hunted look flickering in his eyes - the look of a caged leopard angrily pacing behind bars."  Also, he saw sails to the south, but Bristol's not on lookout, so he doesn't see any reason to call out.  Besides, with so much traffic on the Caribbean these days, why the alarm?  It's not like he's in a pirate story or anything.

While Bristol is justifying this dereliction of duty and silently mocking the Governor's paunch, that marlinespike, being a short wooden cone used to tie together or untangle rope, slips from where Bristol had stuck it between two lines and plummets down before he can catch it, right towards the Governor.  It hits the deck next to the guy, the Governor screams shrilly, Lieutenant Ewell (Evil?) yells for Bristol to get down this instant, and our hero knows he's screwed.

"You blackguard!  You insolent whelp!" shouted the governor.  "Trying to murder me?  'Od's wounds, what have you to say for yourself?"

"My marline-" Bristol began, his voice quite steady.

"Shut up!" cried the governor.  "It's attempted murder, that's what it is!  Attempted murder!  You're in the pay of France to kill me.  I see how it is now.  I see how it is."

We're now on page three of the story, and the author is already taking care to make the authority figures as unlikable as possible, so we won't feel too bad when our hero goes rogue.  We've got a skittish, overreacting governor, the arrogant Captain Mannvile (Vile mann?), and a bunch of others whose faces are "fat and red with soft living" with merciless eyes.  This ship's officers aren't particularly cruel compared to others,

But this was 1680, and the tide of lust for empire had swung high in the great nations of the world.  Human life was nothing.  Compassion was almost forgotten.  Britain was setting herself to rule the seas, and Spain was setting the example for bestiality.

Um... well.  Technically correct as a way to describe bestial behavior, but you still may want to choose another word, o master of literature.

The governor, whose name is Sir Charles Stukely (stu... stupidly?  stupid pukely?), decides that a good flogging is the way to instill discipline, and the captain agrees that Bristol shall receive a hundred lashes.  Even our hero has to grab the rail to steady himself after receiving this death sentence, but the governor is enthusiastic - "Perhaps that will teach the fool to respect the persons of his betters.  That murderously thrown belaying pin might have snuffed out my life!"

Now, as we all know, a marlinespike is hardly the same as a belaying pin, and contempt for his supposed superiors gives Bristol the strength to look the governor in the eye, correct him on his mistake, and add "had I known that it would fall, I am certain that I would have pitched it more accurately."  The governor goes purple and inflates with flabby rage at being called "sirrah," and so Captain Mannville adds another hundred lashes to Bristol's sentence.  He's doubly dead now.

With nothing left to lose, Bristol chews all these idiots out, daring them to shoot their pistols and ranting at being press-ganging even when he was already serving aboard the Randolph out of Maryland.  Ah, so he's a proto-American hero, a working-class guy up against a corrupt and arrogant bourgeois that would kill him for no good reason.  So it's okay when he goes pirate later in the story, see?

With one last note that Bristol is so damn manly that Captain Mannville is having trouble looking him in the eye, all the bad guys grab and tie him up, readying Bristol for his fatal flogging.  The quartermaster produces the cat-o'-nine-tails, a collection of lashes enhanced with brass wire and lead pellets, "responsible for more deaths than scurvy or gunshot," right.  The captain steps back, the governor steps forward with eyes that are "brittle hard, like polished agate..."

The lash went back with a swift, singing sound.  Bristol clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, expecting the white-hot flash of pain.

And the chapter ends.  Huh.  Certainly a better cliffhanger than all those "I've got you now, Countess Krak!"

All things considered, not too bad.  This is a very efficient chapter, which establishes everything we need to know to start the story in a few pages and puts it all into motion.  Yes, all the cast members are flat as cardboard cutouts and the story thus far is nothing we haven't seen before, but we can't complain that the food is salty and greasy if we pulled into a McDonald's.  If I were living during the Great Depression and couldn't afford a proper novel, this would not be a totally disagreeable way to kill a couple of minutes before getting back to my miserable existence.

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