While I was at NYCC this year, I came across the Belle & Blade Video booth and knew I found my new best friend. They had a ton of swashbuckling movies and some books. Two of the books I picked up where by L. Ron Hubbard (yup, that one) — Under the Black Ensign and Mister Tidwell, Gunner. Both are super fast reads, short novellas of barely 100 pages (including the glossary at the end). Since I was taking the bus from NYC back to Boston I had plenty of time to read the book (and also nap).
Under the Black Ensign is set in 1680 and was first published in the August 1935 issue of Five Novels Monthly magazine. It reads like an Errol Flynn movie from the 1930s. It’s super quick pace. Our hero is a Mister Thomas Bristol, formerly the first mate on the good ship Randolph. But during shore leave he’s pressed into service aboard the HMS Terror, where he’s accused of attempted murder of the Lord High Governor. He’s sentenced to 100 lashes, but thanks to the grace of Poisedon, the Terror is attacked by pirates. The pirates overwhelm the crew of the Terror. Naturally, Bristol bails on the people who were about to hand him a death sentence and he joins the pirates. He remains aboard the Terror as a pirate where he meets a fifteen-year-old boy James — a bit young for piracy, Bristol muses. Not to give too much away but Bristol quickly finds himself in a duel with Ricaldo. He kills Ricaldo, and subsequently sentenced to being marooned on a deserted island with just a bottle of water, a pistol, some powder, and one shot.
And all that happens within in forty pages of the book. You like fast paced stories? There you go right there.
Bristol eventually escapes his terrible fate on the island, and begins his own career as a ruthless but just pirate. All the while he plots on his revenge on the the Lord High Governor and his puppet captain who pressed him into service originally and sentenced him to 100 lashes, culminating with a large sea battle at the end and sword play on land.
It’s a fun story and, as I said, a very quick read. There’s not a lot in terms of character development. How the characters are on page 1 are more or less how they are on page 100. Like many stories of the era, Bristol’s love interest is a bit of a plot device in the book. It’s not nearly as bad as other stories from this time. She’s does have a moment or two where she seems more than a damsel in distress — she’s active in saving Bristol, though she’s passive in her own rescue. *shrugs* And sometimes the fight scenes are way to brief. People surrender a lot faster than I’d personally like in a story like this. Personal preference.
What I also like about this are the illustrations. They’re simple but fun, and add to the charm of the pulp fiction and swashbuckling genre. I will admit that the how the slaves are drawn are a bit iffy at best in terms of it’s PC. Oh 1930s…. yeaaa….