Monday, September 5, 2016

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Sacchi Green

The “Devil” part of my title is actually just the trouble I’m having thinking up interesting villains for the superhero novella I’m working on, so it’s not relevant to the theme of what I’m reading. I might, however, make a case for certain aspects of the two “deep blue sea” books I’ve been reading being on the devilish side.

One of them is written by an author who asked me to review it. That situation in itself is moderately devilish; you want to be honest, but you want to please the author, too. She’s a fine writer, she’s written terrific short stories for some of my anthologies, and I’ve met her in person and like her a lot, but I’m a little more than halfway through the book and it just doesn’t push any of my buttons. I suspect that it’s been so long since I was doing regular reviews for the departed Erotica Revealed website that I’ve forgotten how to evaluate a book in terms of how well it does what it sets out to do, which is to push the buttons of those whose buttons are aligned that way.

I do like the main character, a transman who owns a junk-rigged sailboat (meaning the sail is square in the Chinese tradition) and takes paying customers on cruises in the Caribbean. The author has lived on a sailboat for many years, so she knows pretty much everything about boats and the sea, and I enjoy all the details she provides, although some readers might wish her to get along with the story part faster. Where I get bogged down is with the other main character, who might well be seen as devilish by some. She’s a former musical superstar who has isolated herself and her companion on an island so private that she’s tampered with online navigation charts to keep anyone from knowing it even exists. Is this possible? I guess it doesn’t matter that much. She’s amassed a powerful array of technology in her crusade to destroy corporate music companies and get music lovers to contribute money to musicians without going through the evil corporations. Here too the author seems to know what she’s talking about, but this is where I get totally lost in all the technological and music fandom detail and want her to get along with the story, which is clearly going to involve the ship’s captain in consensually submissive sex with the dominant diva. Actually, I’d rather be reading more of the entertaining bits about the ups and downs of shipboard life with eccentric or annoying or quite pleasant passengers, but that reveals my guilty secret; I’m getting too jaded to appreciate the dominant diva sort of sex. Mea Culpa. I expect that most readers will eat it right up, although I haven’t quite got to that part yet, being, as I said, only half way through.

So much for what I’m supposed to be reading. What I’ve actually been enjoying is listening on CD to HMS Surprise, one of twenty books in a series about British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon/naturalist/secret agent friend Steven Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. Patrick O’Brian lays on the descriptive details, both maritime and historical, with wild and extensive abandon, and I love it. I’ve read all the books, some of them several times, and even though I still don’t know what’s meant by all the intricate sail riggings and maritime maneuvers, I’m completely absorbed by their world, and entirely convinced of O’Brian’s accuracy. If I ever get impatient, it’s with the occasional romantic interludes on shore; I’d rather be among the quirky seamen in the constricted world of a frigate or battleship. The writing is unostentatiously gorgeous, and the characters are multilayered, both flawed and heroic, and continually interesting. There’s conflict and treachery and tragedy, some quite devilish villains, and the sea itself in all its infinite variety including storms of terrifying magnitude that might well seem like the work of a devil to superstitious sailors.

You may have seen the movie made from several of the books, combining features of at least five of them and using two of the titles: Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. I enjoyed it, with some reservations, but the books are much better, if you have the time and attention span to read them.

There’s one notable exception to O’Brian’s accuracy, which he acknowledged. The first in the series was set in 1800, and the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, but the series has been so popular, and O’Brian so prolific (until his sad death in 1999), that he had to squeeze several books into a time frame that wouldn’t realistically have had time for them. From Wikipedia: “In his introduction to the tenth, The Far Side of the World, he wrote that if he ‘had known how many books were to follow the first, he would certainly have started the sequence much earlier’ in real historical time. He goes on to explain that ‘if his readers will bear with him’, books of the series will be set in ‘hypothetical years, rather like those hypothetical moons used in the calculation of Easter: an 1812a as it were or even an 1812b’. In effect, the period from June to December 1813 is stretched out to accommodate events that ought to occupy five or six years.”

So there we have it, a pro tip from a writer who knew what he was talking about. If you’re writing historical novels, look ahead and don’t get yourself boxed in by using up the actual timeline of the events too soon. You never know whether your books will be so popular that you’ll need to write more and more of them, and you might be trapped between the devil of historical inaccuracy and the deep blue sea of success.


  1. I’d rather be reading more of the entertaining bits about the ups and downs of shipboard life with eccentric or annoying or quite pleasant passengers

    I love books/movies/plays about that! (And I've been lucky enough to actually perform in two different plays of that type, over the years.)

  2. If this author can't get you excited about the dominant diva and the submissive captain, she hasn't done her job. A truly skilled writer can make the old and expected new again.

    (Not that this is easy. But don't blame your own jaded tastes here. I KNOW you like dominant divas done well!)

    1. I shouldn't have mentioned this book at all, since I'm not finished with it. Chances are I'll be totally enthusiastic by the end. The book doesn't come out on Amazon for a little while yet, so I have some time.

  3. Hmm, based on even your ambivalent description of the book, I'm feeling pretty into it... I'll have to wheedle the title out of you in secret so I can check it out. Maybe this is that thing about whose buttons something is supposed to push.

    1. You'll find out. I hope you won't let on to the author that I've been iffish about her book, though, since by the time I finish it and post a review I'll probably like it just fine.

  4. Series don't really do it for me. I can't seem to read one author more than once in a row. Then I'll need a change.


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