BOOK REVIEW: “Fire On Dark Water” by Wendy Perriman

I came across this historical novel by Wendy Perriman on the “new release” table at Barnes & Noble earlier this summer. When I saw that it was set during the Golden Age of Piracy, I decided to buy it for my Kindle.

Unfortunately I was greatly disappointed by both the writing, the lack of story, some suspect research, and the characters. The story is told not only in first person but as if the main character is talking to the reader, ala Forrest Gump (which worked for Winston Groom but not for Wendy Perriman), so it’s all in the main character’s style of speech. Fine for dialogue but not something I want to read for hundreds of pages.

Particularly annoying was when the main character would use words or phrases that were not even used during the era. One example is “ditty bag” which a simple etymology search by the author would have revealed the origin of this as the 1850’s, not the early 1700’s (or even later, if the main character, Lola, lived to a ripe old age). Another example: “It was one thing giving him a quickie after I’d finished dancing…” The slang term for quick sex is not credited until 1940. This isn’t a matter of being “nitpicky”; it’s a matter of the writer taking the reader out of the era. Readers of historical fiction read such novels for a certain amount of accurate, believable history.

Some of the suspect research I mentioned had to do with Charles Town (modern-day Charleston, SC). She has Lola leaving Charles Town and going “downriver” on the Ashley River when in fact it would up “upriver”. She also has wheat being grown in the lowcountry as well as tobacco. My understanding is that neither crop was suited to lowcountry cultivation. Rice was the big export and for good reason–the environment was well-suited to the crop. She has a character “binding the [rice] stubble into sheaves” when it was the cut rice plants themselves that were bound into sheaves for threshing; it’s not possible to bind stubble–stubble is what is left behind after the plant is cut and is later burned off or plowed under.

Perriman has sailors saying such utterly silly things as, “Hey up, Vi,” and “All hands make sail, ahoy!” Ahoy?? Hailing another vessel, sure, but not tacked onto the end of a command aboard ship. In another place she has one seasoned pirate ask another how far their vessel is from land and “The master surveyed the waters and gave his best guess as, ‘A ways, Cap’n.'” How does anyone gauge such a thing as the proximity of the land simply by looking at the water? Any sailing “master” whose idea of navigation is guessing wouldn’t be in that position to begin with.

In other oddities of words, I wasn’t sure if the fault was in the writer or in the copy editing: “Of course, at first Master William was that burning angry his daughter had been violated” made utterly no sense to me. Another section referred to a group of sailors as a “thong of sailors.” Another bizarre sentence: “I immediately sank like a stinging wreck.” Did she mean “stinking” wreck? Even that would make no sense.

When it came to the characters themselves, all of them except about two were one-dimensional, even the “real” characters that she sprinkles throughout like Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonney (whose name she alternated between Anne and Annie so often that my head spun). The fact that the 14-year-old main character was raped so many times within the first quarter of the book that I lost count was just repetitive, boring, and offensive. The only character I found enjoyable was Pierre in Nassau.

The book has no plot. It simply opens with the girl losing her virginity in a brutal rape and follows several years of her life among pirates (seemingly sprinkled every few pages with more rape). Lola’s loyalty to Anne Bonney rings horribly false since Bonney is portrayed as nothing but a brutalizing, abusive harlot to Lola throughout the whole story. Right at the end it seemed as if the writer suddenly realized how unbelievable Lola’s loyalty was and threw it a quick, contrite dialogue between the two to try to explain why Lola continued to lick Anne’s boots, an explanation that fell short and rang false.

This was Perriman’s first novel. I had to wonder if it was published simply because she already had published a couple of non-fiction books and thus had an “in” with publishing. For a casual reader who doesn’t mind reading about pirates in stereotypical fashion, this book will find some readers. To serious readers of historical fiction of that era, including Age of Sail novels, I would suggest you save your money for Patrick O’Brian or Dudley Pope or another well-respected novelist of the Age of Sail era.

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One Response to BOOK REVIEW: “Fire On Dark Water” by Wendy Perriman

  1. RP says:

    Thank you for the honest review. I am halfway through the book and disappointed thus far; I went online to see what others thought, and I am surprised at all the high recommendations. I find myself distracted by some of the same issues you point out, which detracts from my overall experience. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’ll recommend it to anyone. I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one!

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