Sandra Riley,
Sisters of the Sea
(Dorchester, 1980; Riley Hall, 2003)

The saga of 18th-century pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read is worthy of a big-budget film boasting an A-list cast and top-of-the-line special effects. However, if Sandra Riley's novel were used as the basis of a screenplay, we'd be looking at a B-movie treatment for which the majority of the buzz would undoubtedly focus on which hopeful starlet would be baring all as Bonny.

This is a pirate story, and thus above all else we have a right to expect plenty of cutlass-and-cannon action at sea. But Riley somehow managed to pen a tale in which most of the action passes by unnoticed. Instead, we get lots of stilted period speech and a great deal of grubby sex, including a voyeuristic peek at each girl's sexual awakening. Bonny, inarguably the more free-spirited of the two lady pirates, romps topless so much that one must suppose her torso has been burned to leather by the unforgiving Caribbean sun. And, in those rare occasions when she does wear clothing, readers can assume her top will be torn asunder at some point in the scene, so she can distract her adversaries by her shameless heaving and bouncing.

And man, she does like the lovin'.

Riley certainly does a lot of character development in the novel, and she created elaborate backstories for her main characters. That much is to her credit. However, it's a shame she sacrificed the meat of the story: the excitement of piracy itself. Sure, Anne in particular interacts with a surprising number of infamous pirates -- her first encounter with Blackbeard at her family's Carolina estate is especially hard to swallow -- but the thrill of the story is lacking. There is limited detail of actual seamanship, which one might look for in a book about sailing.

Riley doesn't seem sure if she wanted to craft a romance or a pirate adventure, something she probably should have sorted out before she completed the text.

review by
Tom Knapp

12 April 2008

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