There are some writers who seek to be as unique as possible—and fail or succeed in trying. And there are some who try to use as many familiar ideas as is possible. And yet still, there are writers who try to use familiar ideas in their own unique way. Though he has written some truly original stories, I still place Gene Wolfe in the latter category. Inspired by fiction around him, Wolfe has tackled a number of major tropes from genre, e.g. generation starship in The Book of the Long Sun, sword and sorcery in The Book of the New Sun, Arthurian adventure in The Wizard Knight, Orwellian dystopia in Operation Ares, a ghost story in Peace—just to name a few. It didn’t come as a surprise then, when it was announced Wolfe would be publishing a pirate novel, Pirate Freedom appearing in 2007.
Pirate Freedom is the story of Chris. An elderly priest in our time and an apprentice monk in a Cuba of more than two hundred years ago, for the majority of the novel the reader follows the young man’s adventures as he abandons the thought of one day wearing the black to have a life on the sea. Abandoned by his own father at the monastery as a child, when Chris is sixteen he makes the choice to leave the brotherhood with only a penny or two to his name. Traversing the wharves of Havana, it isn't long before he is hired onto a ship commissioned to escort a galleon loaded with gold back to Spain. The trip going smoothly, Chris signs on for the return trip. But before the sloop can arrive back in port, things go haywire. Pirates capture the vessel and Chris is faced with a choice from the captain: join the crew or be marooned on the next deserted island. Chris takes the third option, and it makes all the difference.
Pirate Freedom is classic Wolfe in the sense that, once a few pages of text have been consumed there is no question who the author is; the deceptively simple prose coupled with mild-mannered intrusions of the unreal serve notice. Once the pages really get turning, however, the storyline finds itself in less commonly tread ground in Wolfe’s oeuvre: transparency.
Like The Wizard Knight, Pirate Freedom occupies territory somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Unlike The Book of the Short Sun, meaning and purpose are at the surface for the reader to enjoy and ponder. Yes, the story contains references to Catholicism, Christianity, God, etc., but it is not disguised apologetics. Life in the cloisters and a life on the seas given equal weight, it would seem Wolfe leaves it up to the reader to decide which is best for them. And this would match title and content: just as ‘freedom’ is on the cover, so too is the situation among Chris and his band of pirates in their choice for paths of life. Everyone joins of their own decision knowing the stakes, what waits beyond likewise their fate to master as best they can. There is a clear balance among the priorities, which forms both a positive message reinforcing the value of individual choice, as well as the strong consideration of consequence for said choices.
In the end, Pirate Freedom is a classic pirate adventure in the vein of Treasure Island. Able to be appreciated by both adults and the young, Wolfe tells a well-paced story featuring the abiding tropes of pirating while implementing scenes that represent morals and rights Wolfe obviously feels are important to life—regardless on the high seas with a parrot and cutlass or walking the sidewalk chatting with friends. Fully complementing the story are the charcoal sketches in the header for each chapter, bringing to life the scenes described, not to mention giving the book the classic feel it exudes and deserves.