James L. Nelson,
Brethren of the Coast #3: The Pirate Round
(William Morrow, 2002)

Thomas Marlowe's fortunes have fallen somewhat by the start of The Pirate Round, the third and final volume of James L. Nelson's Brethren of the Coast trilogy. With war in Europe disrupting trade from the colonies, the tobacco crops from his Williamsburg plantation will not bring him the income he needs to keep up the appearances of being the wealthy landowner he aspires to be. And, while his various pursuits at sea in the past have brought him great wealth, those hidden funds have dwindled over the years to a single case of ill-gotten coins.

So Marlowe, for whom the sea has always been his first and truest love, decides to smuggle his crops to London ahead of the rest of Virginia's tobacco fleet and, perhaps while he's at it, take a trip to the notorious Pirate Round of Madagascar to plunder the treasure-filled ships that sailed its waters. It all sounded so simple -- in theory.

But Nelson pitches plenty of obstacles in Marlowe's path -- so many, in fact, that it might almost be comical if not for the dark turns the story takes as it unfolds. Between one murderous enemy from his past and the self-styled king of the Madagascar seaways, Marlowe will be hard-pressed to keep body and spirit alive -- to say nothing of his beloved wife Elizabeth, who sails along on the trip because her business acumen, necessary for dealings in London, far exceeds his own, and his best friend Francis, a gentle soul who made Marlowe the man he is today.

Set in 1706, The Pirate Round has a few plot threads that seem to go nowhere, as well as some plot developments that readers will never see coming. Nelson doesn't pull punches when it comes to the dangers of seafaring, much less piracy, in the early 18th century, and this gripping novel will keep you turning pages through the stunning, explosive climax and the coda that follows to wrap things up.

True, Nelson's villains are just a bit too villainous, but he makes up for that failing by giving us a morally ambiguous hero. While Marlowe can often be counted on to do "the right thing" in a tough situation, he sometimes needs a profit motive or other incentive to give him a nudge in that direction. And, courageous and cunning though he may be, Marlowe has more than his share of poor luck along the way.

The Pirate Round provides a powerful close to the Brethren of the Coast saga, one that will leave readers a little stunned and breathless by the final page. I certainly hope more of Nelson's work finds its way to my door; this former seaman from Maine needs to keep writing.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

17 May 2008

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