Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Seafaring fantasy #2: The Black Ship

The Inland Sea of Crosspointe, the setting for Diana Pharaoh Francis' novel The Black Ship, is smaller, and more thoroughly mapped out, than the vast oceans of Bas-Lag, but no less deadly. Outside the Pale, a magical harbour, there are animal, meterological and metaphysical hazards, not to mention the shore-hugging ships of hostile nations. Freak currents and tides throw vicious depth-dwelling creatures to the surface, and the sea contains sylveth, a mercurial substance that turns all it touches into undead spawn. Sailing requires more than good seamanship and depends on the relationship between Captain and Pilot, the latter extending his or her extra-sensory perception with the aid of a magic compass.

The nature of luck is a theme running throughout the book, which opens with a shot across the bows of classic tragedy. In the face of all the danger it is unsurprising that, as on Earth, Crosspointe's sailors have grown superstitious. The protagonist, cat-loving whistler Pilot Sylbrac is a rarity of Crosspointe - a character who tempts fate openly. Sylbrac is however not much of a people person, and the Ketirvan, a sort of Pilot's AGM leaves him isolated and cast out without a ship assignation - worse, he is pressganged aboard an unregistered vessel, the Black Ship of the title in more than one sense. It turns out that bringing a cat aboard is nothing compared to the juxtaposition of other supposedly unlucky portents for the voyage. However the story takes apart the very meaning of luck - after all, is it unlucky or lucky to have survived three consecutive shipwrecks?

Embracing his fate, so to speak, Sylbrac takes on a new identity - Thorn - and starts afresh to offend his shipmates by challenging their superstitions even while he seeks to disprove their negative views of him. Pilots in general are a proud, aloof and inhumane lot but Thorn has an unfair advantage in that he was a common sailor before becoming Pilot. Thorn, and for that matter Captain Plusby and the crew, develop tangibly and satisfactorily as the novel progresses. The relationship between cat Fitch and the crew is a barometer for the crew's progress as they grow first to accept and trust Thorn then to overcome their fears. There's a lot about identity too - Thorn has lived many lives and of course cannot really leave his past identities behind him; while many other characters are formed, reshaped or motivated by their losses or traumas.

All this takes place in a setting that combines flights of fantasy with very well-researched Age of Sail detail - the vocabulary, mechanics and superstitions of sailing have a strong sense of authenticity. The book opens slowly - the voyage doesn't really get underway for a good ten chapters, and unlike The Scar, The Black Ship doesn't throw up new creatures or fantasies with every page-turn, but there's still a great deal of exciting action, intelligent human drama and plenty of twists and revelations.

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