Monday, August 25, 2014

Susan Ronald's "The Pirate Queen": A Review

Moving on to my next nonfictional audio book, The Pirate Queen by Susan Ronald. It was coincidental I got this book the same day as The Outlaw Sea, because although I do like to read about nautical topics from time to time, it wasn’t because I was in any particular seafaring mood on that specific trip to the library, but simply because those were two of the few audio books my library owns that I have not read yet. (The pile is dwindling dangerously low in that section.)

The Pirate Queen is subtitled Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire, and the thesis for this book is pretty plain: Queen Elizabeth used her Pirate Adventurers (basically sanctioned pirates, also called privateers later in history) to buoy up a chaotic and politically precarious Britain into a stable foundation for the empire that was to come. When Elizabeth took the throne, she was a Protestant monarch of a small island surrounded by powerful Catholic kingdoms, all doubting the legitimacy of her claim to the throne, all thirsty to add her lands to their own empires, and she had very little to work with in the way of money or firepower to fight against it. 

This book chronicles the first days, when the left hand of Queen Elizabeth didn’t know what her right hand was doing; she’d secretly sanction pirates to trade in the East Indies (primarily slaves) while pretending ignorance when the Spanish would demand that these pirates be forbidden to sail again. Things get pretty interesting with Francis Drake when he decides to make looting the Spanish a personal quest, and among the other “Gentleman Adventurers” under the Queen’s patronage starts to bring gold and other riches back to England. Finally the English fleet defeats the Spanish Armada, simultaneously marking the diminishing influence of Spain and ringing in the future naval supremacy of Great Britain in the following centuries.

I have very little issue with the book itself. It was well-written, exciting in several parts, with the only pacing issue being Ronald’s insistence in converting Elizabethan currency to both American dollars and modern U.K. pounds. 

“Why not convert them to Canadian dollars?  Or since Spain is such a huge part of the book, why not euros too?” I would think with a roll of my eyes.  

But this issue is very slight when compared to how well the book was written otherwise, and these sorts of long explanatory asides are pretty common in the more academic history books, especially in the form of footnotes.

Another slight issue was how Ronald treated the slave trade, and that was inconsistently.  Sometimes she would talk about the “unfortunate trade of slaves” or something along that line, and other times she would just mention it in passing. 

It’s fine if she wanted to look at slavery from a 21st Century perspective, pointing out that maybe the riches the English pirates were bringing home to Elizabeth were ill-gotten and at a moral price. But if an author does that, she’s committing herself to doing it through the entire book, not just when she thinks of it. Besides, it was a bit clumsy how she would shoe-horn it into sentences. 

It would be as if, when talking about tobacco-smoking rising in popularity in Britain due to colonial trade, Ronald interrupted herself to address the audience, “But remember, reader, smoking is bad for your health.” Again, this incongruity in tone (I would have preferred she just make a long address of it immediately, and then move on, rather than an occasional comment at irregular intervals) isn’t much of a detractor for the overall worth of the book. 

The largest problem with this audio book, as with The Outlaw Sea, was the reader.  And no, I'm not talking about me (this time, anyway), I'm talking about the person who recorded the audio book. A professional and not Ronald herself this time, the performer was a British lady doing a British accent I’d never heard before. While very clipped and precise, and with adequate emotion, the reader nevertheless was not up to par with the prose she was reading. 

The reason for this was her inflection: though far from Langewiesche’s monotone, she decided to put emphasis on certain syllables in ways I’ve never heard from any English speaking person. To be blunt: she sounded like an automated voice, like the kind you hear when taking directions from a GPS. Listening to the majority of this book in the car, I half expected her to start droning “RECALCULATING” or urging me to make the first legal U-turn possible.  

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