Monday, September 10, 2018

Rafael Sabatini — Entertaining, Intelligent Swashbuckling

I discovered Rafael Sabatini through audio of his two most popular books, Scaramouche and Captain Blood. I didn't realize for some time that these were just a small sampling of Sabatini's work.

He wrote 31 novels, not to mention numerous short stories and other works. As if that weren't impressive enough, he spoke seven languages and then learned English specifically for writing because, he said, "all the best stories are written in English." He had to write for 25 years before achieving fame with Scaramouche  (After which the publishers said, "Wait, look at all these other great books he's written!" and rushed them into print.) Sabatini just kept on writing even more great books.

I love knowing that there are so many of his books out there to read. They are all adventure and romance novels with clever dialogue and elaborate plots. Heroes, swordfights, and chivalry abound though often with characters that go against our expectations, which just adds to the enjoyment. Almost all of them have historical backdrops and characters which are accurate, while being part of an exciting story.

Think of Sabatini as the Georgette Heyer of adventure. He's tops for a real page turner that doesn't dumb it down while simultaneously not needing to be deep to keep your attention.

Most are available from the usual places, public domain books can be found on Project Gutenberg or ... your local library probably has a ton of them. They were very popular once upon a time.


THE SEA-HAWK
My exploration of Rafael Sabatini's books began with noticing this title which is the name of my favorite Errol Flynn movie. Turns out the title is about all they took from the book, if indeed the book was at all involved.

This is the tale of a family feud, betrayed brotherhood, and love gone awry which results in galley slavery, more than a flirtation with Islam, and every exotic story device that can be imagined. It all works. It's a bit over-the-top sort, but I was hanging on every chapter, reading breathlessly to see what happened next.

What makes the story even better is that Sabatini evidently was scrupulous in being historically exact. Yes, Lord Oliver existed and did those things. Now, that didn't keep Sabatini from inventing and exaggerating to give us this swashbuckler. And I'm ok with that. I'm not reading these for the history, though that doesn't hurt it a bit.


ST. MARTIN'S SUMMER
Garnache is a wily and accomplished swordsman sent by the Queen to rescue an heiress who is being held prisoner by a mother and son so they can take her estate. A lot of my enjoyment of this book is due to Garnache's unbridled temper, which has been the bane of his career. Watching him struggle to overcome it and the result of his ill-timed explosions is a lot of fun because we can sympathize with his frustration.

He despises the fairer sex, "Let me tell you that this is the first time in my life that I have been concerned in anything that had to do with women." This makes it more ironic when the main players in the story are all women: the Queen of France, the girl he must rescue, and the wicked Marquise de Condillac who foils his attempts repeatedly. Poor Garnache does nothing but deal with women, except when he's sword fighting, of course.


THE BLACK SWAN
This hit the spot for swashbuckling adventure. Wanting a break from thinking and chaos and the real world, I borrowed the movie from the library and we were delighted with the old pirate adventure featuring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. Sparks flew. Swashbuckling and preening. And so forth. Naturally I had to get the book. Which was tons better. Tons.

Priscilla Harradine is sailing to England, accompanied by Major Sands who is at least twice her age and, unbeknownst to her, hoping to marry her. Also on board is Charles de Bernis. And that's lucky because when their ship is boarded by the infamous pirate, Tom Leach (sailing the Black Swan) Charles is able to save them all from certain death (and worse!).

The interest lies in watching Monsieur de Bargis nimbly navigate minefields in dealing with pirates, officious boors (Major Sands, of course), and everyone who keeps threatening bodily injury and death to the small group of people he is trying to save under very trying circumstances. One of which is the aforementioned boor who we love to hate. Of course, there is a love interest but it is handled in the most delicate way which was most enjoyable to watch unfold.


SCARAMOUCHE
Lawyer Andre-Louis Moreau has never believed strongly in any philosophical point of view. When his best friend goes to face the arrogant Marquis de la Tour d' Azyr for slaying a poacher, everything goes wrong. Andre-Louis finds himself on the run, eventually joining an acting company, but with a sense that he must speak up for his friend's beliefs, even if he doesn't really believe them. Andre-Louis's natural gift for rhetoric and logical argument are used for both humorous and dramatic effect.

This book pulls us into the arguments for and against revolution, while enjoying romance, revenge, betrayal, treason, and, of course, sword fighting. I love watching Andre-Louis become what he pretends to be.

It's extremely enjoyable swashbuckling on the eve of the French Revolution. This might be the perfect companion volume to A Tale of Two Cities, though it also had strong echoes of Nicholas Nickleby because of the theater connection.


THE SNARE
There are multiple snares in this swashbuckler by Rafael Sabatini. Set in Portugal, under Wellington's command as he forms a clever trap for Napoleon, this is a tale of jealousy, love, betrayal, and friendship ... all set into motion by one stupid, selfish brother. Atypically, this is no swashbuckler with most of the story taken up by a legal trial.

I really enjoyed it although the trial toward the end was a bit lengthy for my taste. I didn't expect military strategy to form such a big part of the plot but was fascinated by this look at the Napoleonic wars.



CAPTAIN BLOOD
Dr. Peter Blood is sentenced to slavery and exile in the islands after his arrest for treating wounded rebels. When he escapes, no ship sailing the Spanish Main is safe from his natural talent for piracy. He does, however, have an Achilles heel — his love for Miss Arabella Bishop who was the only kind person during his slave days. Rescuing her and redeeming his reputation will take all his skill.

This is the best known of Rafael Sabatini's books. It is just a touch less over the top and a bit more complete in characterizations. I did get tired of all the sailing maneuvers toward the end but that's just me. I listened to B.J. Harrison's fine narration of the novel. It made perfect listening while working on a long project.


BELLARION
Bellarion is a naive, monastery educated orphan who gets sidetracked on his way to finish his classical education in the big city. Faced with a series of emergencies, his native intelligence leads to an unsuspected ability to solve problems and strategize. His unexpected rise into a responsible position leads to intricate political intrigue and warfare.

Unfortunately, the story often ground to a halt because of the numerous battles and sieges recounted. I understand it is based on real history and people (except for Bellarion) but I feel good storytelling should have been able to communicate a lot of these events without taking me through it blow by blow. However, it is a good story overall and with my battle-skimming abilities I enjoyed it well enough.


THE HOUNDS OF GOD
Margaret Trevanion has been raised with an unusual amount independence and self-reliance which leads to her spurning the neighbor we suspect she loves and taking a survivor of the Spanish Armada as her prisoner. Who we do not trust, though that distrust is based on very little. (Heavens, I might as well be Elizabethan with that attitude!)

Others have commented on how different the second half of the book is from the first. The Spanish Inquisition and royal rulers are a large part of that difference. I actually really enjoyed both parts. Elizabeth I's note to King Philip made me laugh out loud and these two self-centered rulers are perfect foils. Likewise, we are shown several contrasts within the Inquisition and these are both entertaining and give food for thought about motivations and the result of lying to oneself (Brother Luis, I'm lookin' at you!).

1 comment:

  1. Captain Blood ,another Flynn classic is second only to Robinhood in my book.

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