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Literature / The Pyrates

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The Pyrates is a 1983 novel by George MacDonald Fraser and probably the single most deliberately Trope Overdosed work of literature in history. Fraser set out to tell every single pirate adventure story simultaneously, and he largely succeeded.

In brief, Captain Benjamin Avery, a classic hero, is commissioned to deliver the immensely valuable Madagascar Crown, but by sheer mischance, the ship is also carrying the notorious Colonel Blood and Sheba, the pirate queen. Pretty soon, Sheba's five fellow pirate captains rescue her, and discover the Madagascar Crown, which conveniently is easily split into six jewelled crosses, one for each captain. Avery and Blood are left marooned, facing certain death.

After their inevitable escape, Avery announces he will single-handedly wipe out all the pirates, and recover the stolen crown, but ends up accidentally abducting a noble Spanish lady, on her way to marry the loathsome Don Lardo. Much excitement later, Avery ends up leading the pirates in a climactic battle against the Spanish. The Crown is recovered, the pirates escape with a boat full of Spanish gold, and Avery gets the girl. Admittedly, the other two women intent on claiming him might prove a problem, but he is a hero and a gentleman.

Not to be confused with Pyrates (which lacks "The".)

The novel features notable examples of:

  • The Ace: Avery, whose initial description in the novel is to the effect that he's good at everything.
  • Adjective Animal Alehouse: The Foundered Squid.
  • Affectionate Parody: Very much this toward the pirate fiction/historical fiction genre.
  • Agent Peacock: Bilbo, who is on the cutting edge of fashion, and is the best swordsman the Coast Brotherhood has.
  • Amazon Chaser: Black Sheba is described thusly
    Born a Barbados slave, she had clawed her way to power in the Coast fraternity by a piratical genius and ruthless ferocity that had made her the toast of women's liberationists all along the Main. Her fellow sea-wolves respected her, had astonishing fantasies about her, and went in terror of her.....
  • Amazonian Beauty: Sheba is a tall, full-figured, and beautiful swordswoman.
    Six gorgeous feet she was, from the heels of her tight-fitting Italian thigh boots (from Gucci, undoubtedly) to the curling plume of her picture hat, breeched and shirted in crimson silk that clung to her like a skin, lithe and sleek and dangerous as a panther — Sheba, the black pirate queen, looking like something out of Marvel Comic with her lovely vicious face and voluptuous shape, her dark eyes flashing against her ebony skin, smouldering silently as she unsheathed her dainty rapier with its Cartier hilt, and posed with the contemptuous grace of a burlesque star, indifferent to the ecstatic sighs and groans of her besotted followers.
  • Anachronism Stew. Governed entirely by Rule of Funny. As in:
    To cap it all, the pirates had taken over the ship's intercom, and instead of the normal hymns and rousing sea shanties, the muzak now consisted entirely of dirty drinking songs illegally taped from Radio Tortuga.
  • Anti-Hero: Colonel Thomas Blood. To a lesser extent, Calico Jack Rackham, but the text makes a point of describing Blood as the antihero.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Once Donna Meliflua Etcetera realises Avery doesn't intend to subject her to a fate worse than death she is momentarily baffled, given that he is a stranger with a sword who's burst into her cabin and she is a beautiful young Spanish noblewoman.
  • Arranged Marriage: Senor Etcetera has arranged a marriage between his daughter Meliflua and Don Lardo. Both father and daughter know how Don Lardo looks and his age; but to Papa, it's an advantageous match. Meliflua is considerably unenthusiastic even before she meets her fiance.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    • The long list of charges Black Sheba is convicted of (by Judge Jeffries, no less) ends in '...murthers, slaughters, robberies, putting in fear and operating without a Board of Trade Certificate!'
    • And when the pirates raid a ship, the order is subverted: "...smashing bottles, knocking on doors and then running away, and, of course, slaughtering everybody on board."
  • Artistic License Biology: Employed shamelessly with the dreaded maguay plant, and the man-eating octopods of Octopus Island:
    ...creatures extinct except in the pages of sensational literature.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign:
    • Donna [sic] Meliflua Etcetera, daughter of Don Miguel Alonzo Bonanza Verandah Etcetera, is betrothed to Don Lardo Baluna del Lobby y Corridor.
    • Meanwhile, there's Happy Dan Pew, an Englishman who labours under the delusion that he's a French pirate, despite not actually speaking very much French. This has a somewhat... interesting effect on his dialogue.
  • Attempted Rape:
    • Vanity is repeatedly threatened with rape and saved just in time.
    • After Sheba is captured at the beginning of the book, she is threatened with rape by the fort guard until the surviving superior officer shuts that crap down.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Anne Bonney, who is described as having become "exquisitely languid" through a diet of marshmallows and younger men. When her top button is undone, Avery fears overspill, and yet:
    "This lady was slightly older, with more... what was the word? Proportion? Generosity? What had that cad Blood called it... baaarroomph? Anyway, she was undoubtedly attractive, and most appreciative..."
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Firebeard.
    His idea of living was to hit people with anything handy, grab any valuables in sight, and blue the lot on wenches and drink. He was a pirate for these reasons, and also because he enjoyed bellowing those hearty songs which John Masefield would write in course of time.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Dan Pew communicates exclusively in Poirot Speak, but is such a competent pirate, that it's overlooked.
  • Captain Colorbeard: Firebeard. He's specifically cited has having flaming red hair, and a beard to go with it. He or someone probably picked it, since he doesn't remember his birthname anyway.
  • The Cavalier Years: The setting. The introduction makes it clear that this is the good Cavalier Years, the romanticized Cavalier Years, before historians came along and ruined it by loudly announcing that it was The Dung Ages.
  • Chastity Dagger: Anne Bonney prepares the invasion of her island by tucking a stiletto into her garter; in case some token resistance is expected before her ravishment.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Thomas Blood (cashiered). He's a coward, lecher and poltroon, but also an extremely capable fighter.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Used without shame. Look, do you want to be entertained or don't you?
    [Avery showing up in just the right place] must strike a discriminating reader as one beezer of a coincidence, and it is, the author's only excuse being that if Avery were to turn up in Reykjavik or Darwin, Australia, it would cause fearsome logistical problems and play absolute havoc with our plot.
  • Convenient Escape Boat: The absence of one of these is a source of profound shock. As Colonel Blood says:
    Colonel Blood: Whoever heard o' pirate ship without a small boat moored 'neath the stern an' provisioned wi' all necessities, so that fugitives can light out unseen!
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: Most of the characters are too Genre Savvy to actually try it, except for Firebeard. Fortunately for him, he gets distracted trying to remember whether the sharp edge is supposed to face in or out.
  • Dressed to Plunder: Between all the characters, it hits all the major variations of the standard pirate outfit.
  • Dumb Muscle: Firebeard. He's massive, incredibly strong, is harder to knock over in a fight than a well-mortared brick wall, and can take some serious impacts. He's also not that bright, partially due to an untreated brain injury that occurred prior to the book. He's captain due to being very good at the "attack and plunder" part of piracy. The rest, other people do the thinking for him.
  • Easily Forgiven: Blood is a master at achieving this. Note that this was true of the real Col. Tom Blood, as well.
  • Expy: Blood definitely calls to mind Fraser's famous Flashman, although Blood is much more likable in his rogueishness.
  • Fake Nationality (In-Universe):
    • The pirate captain Happy Dan Pew labours under the delusion that he is French, despite not speaking much of the language. His crew and peers alike tolerate this curious foible because he's otherwise as close to competent as they've got.
    • Cockney pawnbroker Validimir Mackintosh-Groonbaum is not Russian, Scottish, Jewish - or Cockney - but By God he knows what a buccaneer expects a pawnbroker to be.
    • Golden Vanity gets stranded on an island full of ruffians. Her pocket-sized survival guide for beautiful girls in peril advises her give herself an all-over dye job, dress in skins and pretend to be a native.
  • Fashion Hurts: At least, Black Bilbo's boots do.
  • Fat Bastard: Don Lardo, and to a lesser extent (in both weight and bastardry) Enchillada.
  • Fixing the Game: Colonel Blood's troubles start when he is caught using special glasses and marked cards to cheat.
  • Foil: Blood to Avery, explicitly.
  • Funetik Aksent: Weeth thee Spaneesh, an' wif Vladimir Mackintosh-Groonbaum.
  • G-Rated Drug: The Jungle Princess has a chocolate addiction. Let's be clear on this: She has snorted it, injected it, and rubbed it behind her ears. The one thing she hasn't done is drink it.
  • Genius Bruiser: Calico Jack Rackham.
    First among equals was Calico Jack, by reason of being literate and smart and able to navigate and do all things shipshape and Bristol fashion, look'ee, as his admiring associates often agreed. Also he was strong enough to break a penny between his fingers, which helps...
  • Genre Savvy: Everyone knows the rules. Especially Blood.
    "There's no boat! Jayzus, trust the French! Whoever heard o' pirate ship without a small boat moored 'neath the stern an' provisioned wi' all necessities, so that fugitives can light out unseen!"
  • Go-Go Enslavement: Sheba's plan for getting her romantic rival, Vanity, out of the picture involves selling Vanity into this.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: What happened to Solomon Shafto. The only white guy in the area, the only survivor from his crew, living around a native tribe, dependent on them for survival but never really part of them, and scared to death they'll learn he knows how to make wheels, the pressure on his mind was just too much.
  • The Good Captain: Capt. Benjamin Avery, the hero.
  • Good Is Dumb: Played with. Ben Avery is by all accounts an ingenious young man possessed of a shining intellect, but he's got a gullible streak a mile wide.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: The six crosses of the Madagascar Crown.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: Sheba. Silk, satin, and leather, particularly thigh-high leather boots, make up her average ensemble.
  • Hidden Depths: Lady Vanity shows a surprising amount of courage and composure after being captured by the pirates and taunted by Sheba.
  • High-Dive Escape: Blood attempts one (and fails).
  • Historical Domain Character: Several.
    • Samuel Pepys, the royal family and others appear briefly in the London scenes.
    • Colonel Thomas Blood really did steal the English Crown Jewels, and then talk the King into pardoning him.
    • Anne Bonney is a genuine female pirate. Calico Jack is loosely based on her partner, Jack Rackham, while Firebeard has a tenuous connection with Blackbeard, and Dan Pew was inspired by two French pirates.
    • All of the pirates, even those with about three lines, are apparently based more or less on real pirates, with the exception of Bilbo who is any character Basil Rathbone ever played.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • According to the endnotes, Long Ben Avery existed. Also known as Henry Avery, he got away with one of the biggest treasure hauls of all time. Everything else is upgrade.
    • Colonel Blood might also be considered one of these, except that in real life he was far more of a charming (and eccentric) badass rogue than the novel lets him be.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Parodied by Don Lardo's cunning martial strategies:
    "Why don't you overwhelm them, you cowardly rabble? You're not doing it properly! Disarm them by letting them stab you, and roll away with their swords! Collapse on them, you filth!"
  • Idiot Ball: Don Lardo on two counts, connected by his engagement to Meliflua and his greed for her family's wealth.
    • Meliflua Etcetera, the only child of a very rich father, points out the first one to Vanity; much of Senor Etcetera's wealth is tied up in English investments and accounts, and Don Lardo is stomping for a war between England and Spain to increase his own wealth and power. But such a war will destroy the very fortune Don Lardo slavers after.
    • Don Lardo confides to Enchilada that the only reason he hasn't raped Sheba, Vanity, and Meliflua is he doesn't want Meliflua to write home to her father about it, fearing Senor Etcetera will cancel the cash... They're on a flipping island, Sheba's stronghold, Octopus Island, in fact. No message can get in and out if Don Lardo takes the right steps -heck, he could censor Meliflua's mail all he wants!
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Octopus Island, home to man-eating octopods. (Why? What were your expecting?)
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty:
    • The sole purpose of Don Lardo. And Donna Meliflua.
    • Sheba also gets pretty touchy-feely with Vanity after taking her prisoner.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Captain Avery. The mere idea that Anne wants sex -outside of marriage, even!- is incredibly hard to get through to him, nevermind the concept of using sex to placate her and then ransacking her belongings while she sleeps being irredeemably horrific. Vanity was completely correct when she was certain Avery didn't know how to make out beyond kissing -which she taught him in the first place. As with most things in the book, this is a sendup, of both the "perfect" hero and cultural ideals.
  • Inventing the Wheel: The Mayincatec residents of the Lost City of Cohacgzln are waiting for a Great White God to arrive and teach them how to make wheels. Their massive step-pyramids are explained as piles of discarded wheel prototypes.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: At one point the pirates interrogate Avery by dangling him head-down over the side of a ship while offal is tipped into the water. He decides to bite the first shark to come at him.
  • Jungle Princess: With golden skin and a grass skirt, worshiped by the adoring natives at their temple in the jungle, chosen for her million dollar legs and her ability to dance.
  • Let's Just Be Friends: Calico Jack and Anne Bonney. This is how they eventually part after a long relationship, her remaining in her home, and planning to distract and divert the Spanish commander, and him leaving as part of Avery's plan to defeat the Spanish.
  • Master Swordsman: Bilbo.
    The long black rapier on his hip was reckoned the deadliest from St Kitts to Coromandel, with stoccata and imbroccata and punta rinversa, sa-ha! and he had a nice showy trick of spinning up finger-rings and impaling them on his flourished blade, like the Duke of Monmouth. Not easy
  • Mayincatec: The lost city of Cohaclgzln.
  • Meaningful Name: Don Lardo. The guy has mass -it's a wonder he can walk. Far too often, though, he has more muscle under the flab then the heroes and ladies are strictly comfortable with.
  • Medium Awareness: On page 115, Avery say "I'm the hero. don't suppose you can stab me in the back on page 115, surely?" (Often spoiled by the format of later editions.)
  • Mundane Luxury: Solomon Shafto is obsessed with bread and dripping.
  • Noble Demon: Most of the Coast Brotherhood. They have standards, thank you. Including giving the very annoying Blood and the really irritating Avery a fair hearing when deciding whether to execute them or not.
  • Obviously Evil: Don Lardo. The guy has fang-shaped dentures, for pete's sake. When the gold from the native city turns out to be copper and copper alloy, he orders the entire settlement to be searched again -he knows there's always a survivor, an old woman or a small boy. (He's right, but fortunately, the survivors are long gone.)
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Captain Avery, much to the disappointment of pretty much every woman who crosses his path.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Calico Jack, among the pirate captains. Firebeard and Pew suffer from the long-term effects of pre-story brain injuries, Sheba has a nasty and vicious temperament due to her past as a slave and clawing her way up among the pirates, Bilbo, while mostly sane, is obsessed with fashion and swordmanship, and Akbar isn't on stage long enough for us to know more than he's tough enough to be a pirate captain, loves luxury, and is willing to ravish virgin merchandise, lowering its value.
    • Colonel Blood rapidly comes to consider himself this as well. Avery is very skilled and tunnel-vision-intelligent, but boy is he gullible, and he doesn't know much about operating in the real world outside his established social and work circles, Vanity is in full "I'm rich and the daughter of an Admiral" mode most of the time, and Shafto -well, he has his own problems.
  • Pirate Booty: Blood finds a treasure hoard in the Frantic Frog, much to the surprise of its captain.
  • Pirate Girl: Black Sheba. She clawed her way up to the captaincy and is one of the most feared pirates among the Brotherhood.
  • Product Placement: Helena Rubinstein beauty products and Gucci leather goods (and rapiers). Governed almost entirely by Rule of Funny (much like the rest of the novel)
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Enchillada, and to a lesser extent Goliath the Dwarf.
  • Race Lift: Anne Bonney was Irish in real life (though her family moved to America as a child) but appears to be generically British in the story (in contrast to the also Irish Colonel Blood whose nationality is constantly brought up.) On the other hand, there's an implication that as she's retired from piracy proper she'd begun to put on airs, including a Received Pronunciation accent.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Lady Vanity. No, the name is not a coincidence.
  • Shout-Out: To Treasure Island. Solomon Shafto's obsession with bread and dripping is reminiscent of Ben Gunn's obsession with cheese.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sheba. She really wants Avery on her arm and in her bed, and she'll do whatever she has to to get him there.
  • Tailor-Made Prison: Sheba is held for two weeks in a cage suspended above a pond full of ravenous octopods (not octopi; as Our Hero notes, the word is Greek, not Latin. Octopods or octopodes, take your pick), and three hundred feet below the main building, but after two weeks on a starvation diet (only bananas), she manages to climb up the chain and escape.
  • Talkative Loon: Solomon Shafto, with a hey-diddle-die-hey-diddle-fol-derol-do.
  • Talk Like a Pirate: With much o' the narration being written in a suitably nautical fashion.
    • And the dialog is frequently exaggerated, and usually Lampshaded, as in the very first dialog in the book:
    "Aaargh!" cried the burly captain, twice for emphasis. "Aaargh! Easy, handsomely, I say, wi' they chests, rot 'ee! 'Tis ten thousand pound you'm carryin', ye lubbers!" This was his normal habit of speech, since anything else would have been incomprehensible to his crew. "A pesky parlous cargo it be, an' all, an' glad I am to be rid on't, burn me for a backstay else."
  • Teamwork Seduction: This is pretty much the ending of the novel, with the Chaste Hero being approached by all of his potential love interests. It ends without showing the resolution.
  • Treasure Map: Anne Bonney draws one of her own bedroom, after coming into possession of part of the Madagascar Crown.
  • Tropical Island Adventure: The novel has Madagascar and various islands throughout the Caribbean as settings.
  • Unwanted Harem: Everywhere he goes, Captain Avery finds beautiful women hurling themselves at him.
  • Walk the Plank: The pirate crews initially plan to have their captives walk the plank. Avery calls it out as being an invention of stories and historically inaccurate.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Akbar the Damned bites it pretty early on in the story.
  • Weird Trade Union: For the pirates, though the main characters don't take much notice of the shop steward.
  • Worthy Opponent: The reason Black Bilbo spares Avery's life; Avery turns out to be one of the very, very few people Bilbo's encountered who can not only keep up with Bilbo in a sword fight, but has the skill to potentially surpass him.
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: The opening paragraph is a description of the idealized picture of the setting, which exists in countless novels and films, which is then followed by a description of what "stuffy historians" say the era was actually like. The novel chooses to go with the former.