Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas II: Men of Honor by M Kei

Peter Thorton and his lover set out on a quest to rescue a captive duke who is the pretender to the throne of Portugal. Thorton is arrested and placed on trial for desertion and sodomy. Men of Honor continues the further adventures of a gay officer during the Age of Sail, replete with perils, excitement, and nautical detail.

Review by Alex Beecroft

The plot of this one is somewhat labyrinthine, so I despair of being able to do a summary which will make sense in a short space. However, a brief recap of part of it goes thusly:

Peter Thorton, now a Captain of the Sallee Rovers, with a lover called Shakil and a commanding officer, Isam, who is his ex, is sent to rescue Duke Henrique of Portugal from Sebta, where he is being held prisoner by the Spanish. Henrique has some claim to the throne of Portugal, and if he acts on this, it will put a spanner in the works of the Spanish crown.

So, Shakil enters Sebta in disguise, finds the Duke and they escape to Peter’s ship. Peter then has to convey Henrique to Gibraltar despite the efforts of the Spanish to stop him.

After various incidents he almost reaches Gibraltar, only to be intercepted by his old ship, HMS Ajax and put under arrest for sodomy and desertion.  However, in an attempt to avoid war between Britain and the Sallee states, he is allowed to remain serving as a lieutenant on the Ajax until he can be brought to court martial.  While he’s aboard the Ajax, he finds that he has made an enemy of his old friend Perry; they are wrecked on an island and have to defend themselves against a Spanish warship and …. you’ll have to see the rest for yourself but just from that part you can see that a hell of a lot happens in this book, and while in one respect that’s good – there are no periods where the action lags – in another respect it’s a bad thing. Structurally, this is a much more even book than PoNS1, which had a very slow first 8 chapters but then picked up and became fascinating later on. In this book the pace is pretty even throughout.

Having complained about the slow start of #1, it seems a bit churlish of me to complain about the speed of #2, but that’s what I’m going to do. The pace of this book is relentless, with incident piled upon incident and then stirred up with some more action. As a result, there doesn’t seem time for the characterization and atmosphere of book #1. We didn’t stay in any place long enough for me to be able to get a feel of it, and even the battles had an air of being rushed past in order to get onto the next bit.

Some of the situations this time around struck me as very unlikely – Captain Horner allowing Thorton to serve as a lieutenant despite the charge of desertion on his head. Thorton being made acting captain in the British Navy, despite being a Muslim. My understanding is that all officers in the RN had to be members in good standing of the Church of England. And in fact M.Kei knows this because – earlier on – Peter’s refusal to recant his belief in Islam is a stumbling block during his court martial.

In addition I found I was disappointed that the second book did not go further into the culture and seafaring lore of the Sallee Rovers, but instead returned to the well trodden paths of the European perspective on the Age of Sail. PoNS #1 had a real freshness to it simply because of its focus on the ships and culture of the Barbary pirates. #2 barely touches on it before it’s back to business as usual as far as AoS books go.

Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad book. That would be very far from the truth. As I’ve said, there was something different happening on every page, and while the cast list was so huge that I couldn’t always remember who was who, there was always something exciting going on. M. Kei’s writing has smoothed out from the beginning of #1 and there are no more of the info-dumps that clogged up the beginning of that book. The ample amounts of action keep the book moving fast and breathlessly onwards, and there are some real standout scenes of naval warfare. My favourite by far is the scene where the ships are being fought inside a cave. Wow! That was a corker.

I also enjoyed Shakil’s mission ashore in disguise. There was a tension in this part that some of the later ones lacked, partly because we know by now that Thorton can get out of almost anything at sea, but Shakil has been established as a gentle, unworldly book-keeper. So it’s easier to think of him being out of his depth and to worry for him.

One of the things which were sacrificed for the sake of action in this book was any kind of romance. Yes, there’s an uncomfortable entanglement with Perry, and yes, Thorton reveals that he’s unable to say no to anything in trousers, but these things very much take a back seat to the other action. So, unlike #1, there isn’t really a relationship to root for in this book. Perhaps that’s why, although I think that from an objective stand point it’s a better book than #1, it failed to grip and involve me as much. I come away impressed by the scope and sweep of it, but rather unmoved, emotionally, by the story.

I give it a 4.5 because it’s unquestionably better than the majority of m/m Age of Sail books I’ve been reading recently. M. Kei has a fine grip on his period and his sailing details, and has produced a book which can stand comparison with C.S Forester’s Hornblower series. In fact I was reminded of the Hornblower novels because that’s another series that I can’t really find fault with, but nevertheless didn’t enjoy very much.

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Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas by M. Kei

Lt. Peter Thorton of the 18th century British navy must struggle to come out gay while surviving storms at sea, ship to ship battles, duels, kidnapping, and more in his quest for true love and honor.

My own Quick Summary

Lt. Peter Thorton is in love with fellow lieutenant Perry. Both men are given commissions to serve aboard HMS Ajax, taking an Islamic envoy to talks in France. Peter makes an enemy of the Captain, who is largely incompetent but doesn’t like people who show they know it. During a storm, the Ajax comes to the rescue of a sinking Spanish galley. The Spanish abandon their vessel, leaving their slaves, chained to the oars, to sink with the ship. Peter and several of the other British sailors attempt to free the slaves and stop the galley from sinking. As they do so, the storm blows the two ships apart, leaving him surrounded by freed slaves who have no desire to voluntarily sail back to the Ajax to be reunited with their captors.

Command of the galley is taken by Isam bin Hamet al-Tangueli (Captain Tangle to his crew) a famous pirate of the Barbary coast, who had been serving as a galley slave following capture by the Spanish. The story then follows Peter’s slow naturalization into the ways of the Sallee Rovers, and his growing understanding that he’s better off in a culture that allows him to love other men without censure. Rejected by Perry and wooed by Tangle, Peter has to decide where his loyalty really lies.

(First of a series)

Review by Alex Beecroft

As Speak Its Name’s reviewer most familiar with the Age of Sail, I tend to get all the books which deal with pirates and naval officers in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This is not a bad thing, as I’m always keenly on the look out for the next Patrick O’Brian, and I enjoy a naval battle possibly slightly more than the next person.

Recently I seem to have read nothing but the kind of Age of Sail book where all the action goes on in the Great Cabin, the sails apparently handle themselves, the Captain has nothing to do except to shag his cabin boy, and wind, waves, currents and the ships of other nations never appear at all.

So I was excited to be given this book to read. I had already seen M. Kei’s blog and knew he was someone who was interested in the history and the sailing for its own sake. This, I thought, was going to be different from the outboard-motor historicals I’d read before. I went into it with great hopes.

I almost gave up on it in the first five pages. There are two flaws, IMO, that a historical novel can fall into – one is not to care about the history at all, and the other is to care so much that you load your story with all your research, so that it reads like pages out of a text book cut up and joined together with a thin excuse for a story.

At the beginning of the book, I feared I’d come up against the second type. There seemed to be a lot of explaining how the Admiralty works, explaining about the Articles of War, and the “Captain’s Cloak” which gives a captain absolute authority at sea, etc etc. By contrast there wasn’t a lot of concentration on the characters of Peter and Perry. Also, the first few chapters were very similar to the first few chapters I’ve read of very many AoS books—officers receive their orders, travel to find their ship. The ship and the other officers are introduced. They make ready to sail, etc.

So up until about chapter 7 (the chapters are quite short) I was feeling that this was a worthy attempt which had become choked by its own research.

However—this is a big however—once I hit chapter 8 I started to sit up and take notice. The story suddenly took off. The scene of Peter and his boarding party frantically struggling to free the slaves before the whole ship sank under them was nail-bitingly intense. I cast off all my quibbles and began to thoroughly enjoy myself.

From chapter 8 onwards, the story moved from the path, well-trodden by Forester and O’Brian, of adventures in the British Navy, and entered the realm of the Barbary corsairs. The research began to feel more naturally embedded in the story – for example, it becomes not only fascinating to find out that galleys have watertight bulkheads, but also vitally important for the story. The culture clash between Peter and Tangle was beautifully drawn and gripping—Peter simultaneously proving that he is an admirable, honourable man while learning to appreciate the Islamic way of doing many things, from daily washing to sail-handling.

His realization that Tangle finds him attractive and that he returns the admiration is handled beautifully. Peter has been in the grip of some pretty terrible low self esteem as a result of his “unnatural” and “abominable” inclinations, and it’s beautiful to watch his confidence blossom as he slowly begins to accept that in Tangle’s culture it really isn’t that big a deal.

Over the course of the novel, Tangle and Peter negotiate a treaty with Britain and France which enables them both to serve together united in enmity against Spain. Peter converts to Islam and resigns his commission as a result. Tangle fights a duel with Bishop (Peter’s bad ex-captain) and then spends much of the end of the book trying to get his old ship and possessions back out of the hands of his brother in law, who snapped them up when everyone thought that Tangle would never be coming back.

As is typical for an Age of Sail book, this is more of a “slice of life” than a “romance” with a strict beginning, middle and end. Things happen the way they happen in real life—unexpectedly and often surprisingly. And I like that. The plot here is formed by the arc of character development—Peter learning to accept himself, and Isam learning that although he’s a mighty pirate, sometimes there are things he can’t have all his own way. Just as I enjoyed Peter’s development from self-hatred to confidence, I enjoyed the slow way that Isam’s character went from ‘tragic heroism’ to ‘slightly overbearing but endearingly sunny’. I also enjoyed the constant nautical competence of both characters. I do like a hero who knows how to do his job!

To conclude: I loved the book. I enjoyed it immensely, and I thought it was a wonderful breath of fresh air that it concentrated on the culture of a maritime nation which normally gets cast as the baddies in AoS books.

I wish I could give it five stars. However I’m going to take off a half for the slightly belaboured start. Also—I presume because it’s self-published—there are numerous typos. I would very much urge M. Kei to offer it to a publisher like Lethe Press because I’m certain that a professional edit would be all this book needs to be perfect. Even at 4.5 stars though, if you have any interest at all in the age of sail, I highly recommend that you rush out and get this book. I received an ebook copy for the purposes of this review, but as soon as I’ve posted this I’m going to go and buy it in print.

Author’s Website

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