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Literature / The Brotherhood of the Black Flag

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"History remembers the rogues."
Captain Stephen Reynard

The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is a 2017 historical thriller by Ian Nathaniel Cohen. Set in England, 1721, it tells the story of Michael McNamara, a former British naval officer forced to emigrate to Jamaica to seek his fortune after his expulsion from the navy. He soon meets up with Captain Stephen Reynard, a notorious pirate turned pirate hunter as part of a quest for redemption, and the lovely Dona Catalina Moore. As a member of Reynard's crew, McNamara faces off against hazardous seas, untrusting shipmates, and bloodthirsty pirates...and finds himself ensnared in a conspiracy that threatens thousands of lives.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Although not at McNamara or Reynard's level, Catalina is an excellent fencer who can hold her own when crossing swords with hired killers and experienced pirates. She's also a decent shot with a pistol.
  • Almighty Janitor: Despite spending over a decade as an officer in the navy and a year as a fencing instructor, McNamara is still the newest member of Reynard's crew, and as such is assigned all the dirty jobs. However, during the fight with the King's Ransom, McNamara puts his swordsmanship to excellent use and saves the life of Reynard's master gunner.
  • And the Adventure Continues: At the end of the story, Arthur Jones is now captain of his own ship, and Michael McNamara and Dona Catalina are members of his crew. They sail off together on Jones's quest to see as much of the world as he can.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Lord Edmund is a close advisor to King George I who is also a Well-Intentioned Extremist determined to dethrone the Hanoverian Dynasty in favor of the Stuarts. He redeems himself, though, at the cost of his life.
  • Author Appeal: The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is Cohen's homage to classic Hollywood swashbuckler films, which he grew up on as a kid.
  • Badass Bookworm: McNamara enjoys reading when he has the time, from general fiction to fencing treatises, and is good enough with a sword to get work as a fencing instructor, later starting his own school in Kingston. Reynard has a small library on his ship, and Catalina knows her Shakespeare and the greats of Spanish theater.
  • Badass in Distress: McNamara and Catalina both qualify when they're captured by Reynard.
  • Bar Brawl: On his first day in Kingston, McNamara takes down five pirates trying to extort money from his landlord, making quite a name for himself in the process.
  • Batman Gambit: McNamara and Catalina appropriately come up with one to counter Reynard's Xanatos Gambit. Admittedly, it's something of a Gambit Roulette (see below).
  • Benevolent Boss: Reynard controls his crew through a combination of this and Bad Boss when they let him down.
  • Blood Knight: Captain Lancaster likes leaving a lot of bodies behind in his wake.
    • Reynard easily could have recruited the other pirates without hunting them down and fighting them. He did it anyway because he thought it was more fun than just asking them if they wanted in on his plan.
  • Bold Explorer: Arthur Jones becomes this at the end of the novel, our protagonists under his command.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Reynard leaves McNamara and Catalina alive as his captives aboard his ship instead of just killing them, so they can witness his triumph and be helpless to do anything about it. Sabatini actually calls him out on this, but Reynard refuses to change his mind.
  • Boring, but Practical: For the raid on the King's Ransom, McNamara temporarily trades in his colichemarde for a cutlass, as it's a more practical weapon for this kind of a battle.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Averted. Reynard seems to remember every single one of his gambits and raids.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: McNamara is always eager to put his sword to worthy use, whether fighting a gang of thugs at a bar to battling pirates on the high seas.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: Cohen modeled McNamara on James McAvoy, Dona Catalina on Morena Baccarin, and Captain Reynard on Christian Bale.
  • Confusion Fu: Reynard fights with a schiavona, which has a unique fighting style that can come off as this.
  • Cool Sword: McNamara's colichemarde may be out of fashion, but it's a handy weapon to have around, as it's designed for rapid parrying and withstanding heavy blades. Also, Reynard's custom-made schiavona with the cage hilt made to look like a skeletal hand.
  • Decoy Antagonist: Captain Brian Lancaster, the last pirate Captain Reynard needs for his collection. He's captured halfway through the book. The real villain is Captain Reynard himself.
  • Decoy Protagonist: One might think young fencing student Giles Prescott might be the protagonist of the story. It's actually his instructor, Michael McNamara.
  • The Dreaded: Back when he was a pirate, Captain Reynard put a lot of work into becoming this. He's still out to become this, on a much larger scale.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Or in the case of Niccolo Sabatini, a mast.
  • Due to the Dead: Whenever a survivor of the Keighley dies, his crewmates get together for a drink to share memories of their departed comrade.
  • Evil All Along: Captain Reynard's reformation was all a lie. It was all a ploy to assemble his pirate armada.
    • Lord Edmund Alleyn is a Jacobite sympathizer, facilitating Reynard's scheme so the Stuarts can be restored to the English throne.
    • Sergeant Gilbert as well - he was one of Reynard's many spies.
  • Fame Through Infamy: Reynard's main goal throughout his pirate career. It's his motivation for helping the Jacobites restore the Stuarts. He couldn't care less about who sits on the throne. He just wants to be remembered for his role in planning and pulling off the coup.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: The survivors of the Keighley always have each others' backs. McNamara is accepted as one of them when he saves Robert Hale's life.
  • Flynning: Deliberately invoked. Cohen wrote the sword fights to resemble the ones from classic swashbuckler movies, rather than going for realistic combat.
  • The Gambler: McNamara enjoys playing card games, whether with his Predator shipmates or in Kingston - even though he doesn't usually win - and he known how to play several different games. Odalis Cortez is also a gambler - he and McNamara bond over a game of Brisca.
  • Gambit Roulette: McNamara and Catalina's plan to defeat the armada involves making it to the gun deck unnoticed, successfully capturing one of the rooms of said gun deck, firing on the other ships and getting them to return fire in turn, and get off the ship in one piece. And then there's the little matter of being able to escape their cells in the brig in the first place!
  • Gentleman Adventurer: McNamara may be the youngest son of a solicitor, but he certainly has the manners of a gentleman.
  • The Golden Age Of Piracy: The story is set just as this age is coming to an end, when pirates are being hunted down instead of celebrated as heroic rogues.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Lord Edmund, when fully faced with the consequences of what he's helped unleashed, becomes this. Also, the men of the Keighley who decide to help McNamara thwart Reynard.
  • Hidden Agenda Hero: McNamara points out that murdering King George won't automatically mean smooth sailing for the Stuarts to retake the throne. Reynard throws it back at him by saying he's fully aware of this. He just doesn't care, because he has his own agenda.
  • Historical Domain Character: Sir Nicholas Lawes, King George I, and Sir Robert Walpole are all historical personages. Not to mention all the real-life pirates name-dropped throughout the novel.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: McNamara and Catalina use Reynard's reputation for conniving and treachery to turn the other pirates against him.
    • The bulkheads Reynard installs in the Predator's gun deck to prevent their capture ends up allowing McNamara and his allies to prevent its re-capture by Reynard's crew.
    • Sabatini flogs a man to death while the victim is tied to a mast. During the climax, a mast falls on Sabatini, crushing him to death.
  • Honor Before Reason: When McNamara caught his former commanding officer trying to murder someone, he challenged him to a duel instead of alerting the provosts. It cost him his promising military career.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: EVERYBODY for trusting the word of a ruthless pirate responsible for thousands of deaths with a reputation for back-stabbing and daring Xanatos Gambits. Then again, when it comes to lying, Reynard is just that good.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Averted. The firearms of the time are frequently described as being inaccurate, and the only time bullets typically find their mark is when there are so many targets, they can't help hitting someone, or the target is pretty close.
  • Karmic Death: Sabatini flogs a man tied to a mast to death just to warn the crew against helping McNamara. During the final battle, Sabatini is killed when a mast falls on him.
  • Lovable Rogue: The reformed Captain Reynard is presented as such. Whether he still is after he reveals his true colors is up to the reader's discretion.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: How Reynard disposes of William Atwill, as retribution for trying to have him killed.
  • Meaningful Name: McNamara means "hero of the sea." "Reynard" not only translates to "fox", but in German, it refers to someone gifted in smooth-talking and clever speech.
  • Military Maverick: McNamara seemed to avoid this during his thirteen years in the British Royal Navy until he challenged his commanding officer to a duel after preventing him from killing someone in a drunken rage. Despite his achievements and otherwise clean record, he was kicked out of the navy as a result.
  • The Mutiny: How Reynard became a captain.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Reynard has moments of this when he reflects on his past crimes. (It's all an act.) McNamara as well when he discovers Reynard's true nature, as he never once questioned whether Reynard might be lying.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Reynard couldn't care less about whether the Jacobites succeed in restoring the Stuarts once he's done his part. He's just after the eternal infamy his part in the raid will bring him.
  • Platonic Declaration of Love: At the end of the book, after everything she's been through, Catalina isn't ready to return McNamara's declaration of love, saying she needs more time. McNamara promises to give her as much as she needs.
  • Rape as Drama: Subverted. Although Catalina wasn't raped by the highwayman that murdered her husband, a rumor spread that she had been, which led to other sordid rumors that eventually drove her to leave Portugal.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Reynard gives McNamara a brutal one for not thinking that maybe, just maybe, someone with a reputation such as his wasn't entirely on the level.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Lord Edmund tries to thwart the scheme he helped set into motion. It costs him his life. The same thing happen to the more ruthless survivors of the Keighley.
  • Shout-Out: Except for McNamara and the historical domain characters, every major character (and even most of the minor ones) are named for actors, authors, and directors who have been involved with pirate/swashbuckling fiction and cinema in some manner. In fact, there are so many in this book that they have their own page.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Because Catalina's late husband, Don Ottavio, was Portugese, her title is rendered in the Portugese form of "Dona" instead of the Spanish form of "Doña."
  • Vasquez Always Dies: Averted. Odalis Cortez was originally killed off in an earlier draft, but Cohen changed his mind to deliberately avoid invoking this trope and to make the protagonists more diverse.
  • Villain Cred: When he was a pirate, Reynard wanted to amass as much of this as possible. He still does, taking it up to eleven.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Everything Lord Edmund has done to aid Reynard was for the Jacobite cause - and to protect his family from Reynard's wrath.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: McNamara never once questions whether Captain Reynard is anything other than the romantic redemption-seeker he claims to be, despite his numerous tales of how conniving and devious he was as a pirate. His need for a new path in life overrides his sense of caution - and he gets called out on this hard.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Captain Reynard's specialty as a pirate. (His whole redemption schtick is one as well.)