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Set the Seas on Fire Paperback – September 4, 2007
The Amazon Book Review
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From Publishers Weekly
Roberson adds a pulpy twist to Napoleonic-era naval adventure as the crew of a damaged English frigate finds both paradise and hell on a pair of uncharted Pacific islands. First Lt. Hieronymus Bonaventure, last seen in Paragaea (2006), serves gamely aboard the HMS Fortitude, but longs for something more exciting than harrying galleons across the South Pacific for an aging captain dreaming of padding his retirement stash. When the Fortitude is badly damaged and blown into mare incognita, the unknown sea, the crew manages to reach a tropical island where the natives are friendly and the ship can be repaired. An attack by bat-winged creatures foreshadows the danger awaiting on the forbidden island of first volcano, where Bonaventure leads his men when his native lover, Pelani, is kidnapped. Roberson delivers a fairly standard but well-crafted adventure story for most of the book before delving into the supernatural. The novel is a good bet for adventure fans who want more than your average Horatio Hornblower clone. (Aug.)
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About the Author
"Chris Roberson's novels include HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE (Pyr, 2005), THE VOYAGE OF NIGHT SHINING WHITE (PS Publishing, 2006), and PARAGAEA: A PLANETARY ROMANCE (Pyr, 2006), and he is the editor of the anthology ADVENTURE VOL. 1 (MonkeyBrain Books, Nov 2005). Roberson has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and twice for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form (winning in 2004 with his story ""O One."" He runs the independant press MonkeyBrain books with his partner.
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Within the image of the "unending sea" we have the metaphor of the novel. Bonaventure as hero is, in a sense, "unending." As he should be, because, after all, he is a "pulp fiction" hero. However, there is another more important meaning in the image of the unending sea--a literary conclusion about the nature of genre, which I contend is Chris Roberson's true subject. In other words, in his literary weltanschauung there are no boundaries between the various genres. A historical novel can easily morph into a tale of horror and a hero in a tale of horror can step through a portal into another world. So "Set the Seas on Fire" is a "genre" bender, a mélange of pulp fiction tropes.
Chris Roberson, like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, is working within the confines of pulp fiction. Pulp fiction arose in inexpensive magazines in the 1920s and continued through the 1950s in mass market paperbacks. Pulp fiction contained a wide variety of genre topics: fantasy, detective, western, science fiction, adventure and westerns. Some writers of pulp mixed the genres, creating some of the more exciting and enduring stories. Additionally because the stories were short, the pulp writers learned how to tell an intriguing story concisely. Within a sentence or two the writer was knee-deep in the action.
In the first and last analysis, then, "Set the Seas on Fire" is a pulp fiction/heroic fantasy, tending toward horror, and should be read as such. And Chris Roberson is a meta-fictionist skillfully playing with the genre tropes. His precursors, on one hand, arise from film and horror, history and adventure, fantasy and science fiction; and on the other, there seems to be a hidden alliance with Jorge Borges and Paul Auster. To read the novel otherwise is to cause confusion.
Although the uninformed reader might stumble onto the book and think it was historical fiction, which it masquerades as, it is only historical fiction to the extent of setting and costumes. Its true progeny lies closer to the works of Robert E. Howard. In fact, I found myself several times as I was reading remembering Howard's stories of Solomon Kane, the 16th Puritan adventurer. Roberson even goes so far as to name an island warrior and Bonaventure's adversary in love--Kane. There is also a conscious nod to Michael Moorcock and his von Bek novels.
Yes, it is true that Roberson grounds the novel in facts but that is only to heighten the vertigo you feel when the horror arrives.
The novel begins on a clear day in 1792 in England in one genre--the adventure tale. Children play on a majestic estate, an opening similar to the beginning scene of William Wellman's 1939 production of Beau Geste, which situates us in the world of Wellman and Curtiz. This is the tale of the hero arising from modest circumstances to become a hero. In chapter two, however, we are on a ship in the South Seas. Now we are in the world of the Bounty, on a British frigate, or maybe sailing with Sabatini's Captain Blood. I am sure that many readers compared it to Patrick O'Brien's "Master and Commander." Ah, we say, it is a nautical adventure.
Later the hero lands on an island paradise but there are rumors of monsters and demons. Eventually, Bonaventure falls in love like Fletcher Christian but he encounters grotesque beasts like Solomon Kane.
So, I think the pleasure of "Set the Seas on Fire" lies in four things: first, the convincing historical setting; two, the purity of the prose and the movement of the plot; three, the mixing of genre; and four, the expectation of surprise that arises from the knowledge that Roberson is playing with genre.
Of these four, I want to expand on the element of surprise or suspense. Roberson establishes the expectation of horror early with Bonaventure's encounter with the two Spanish castaways. From that point on the reader knows the other genre shoe will soon drop. But the question is how soon and exactly when. Roberson leisurely lead the reader down many paradisiacal paths.
In conclusion, as a fantasy reader and a fan of pulp fiction, I found "Set the Seas on Fire" satisfying. However, if you are seeking another "Master and Commander" you may be disappointed. But if you like Solomon Kane and von Bek you will be happy with your choice.
The adventures on "First Volcano" only take the last 30 pages of the book and are not coherent. The odd happenings raise more questions than are answered. What we seem to have here is a shallow 375 page novel with (quite literally) many blank pages. Perhaps this is the writer's outline of a more substantial work?
Even the cover is bad....The ship appears to be a 19th century steam sloop stuck in the ice!
The ship is in pursuit of a Manila Galleon, and must put into an uncharted island for repairs. There is a lot about the sojourn on the island, and interactions with the natives. The chase continues when they learn that the damaged galleon has also put into an island, a volcanic island with bad karma. So there is the British naval crew, native warriors, remnants of the Spanish ship's crew, and dangerous strange creatures. The ending seems a bit anticlimatic.
The novel is written at about the teenage to young adult level. One might guess that the author has a sequel in mind, but the war with Napoleon is ending. The main character, perhaps just past 30 at the time of the story, still has potenial.