Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates

We go from the shortest story of the collection to the longest. Hopefully quality is inversely correlated. I know that if I tried to write a story in, like, seven pages, it wouldn’t go very well. I need space to develop ideas and let a slow burn get through the wick. Of course, this has led to my decision to just not release any stories under 25,000 words in length, and I usually aim for 50k-100k, because that’s the area where I’m at best, but hey, I had to write a lot of short stories that sprawled into 50k+ novellas before I figured that out, and I could see a timeline where I’d decided I really needed to commit to the short story thing and wound up writing some of those, and that they would be worse the shorter they were.

So that’s an entire paragraph of me procrastinating having to actually start reading, which is definitely not a good sign.

The aromas of rum and sweat wafted about him with blood and black powder just beneath the surface.

There it is, guys, that’s the smell of pirates, case closed. For serious, though, this is a pretty good opening line, especially in tandem with the title.

That balance was subject to change, of course, depending on the ever-changing winds and where they blew him.

But here it’s kind of belaboring the point.

Anyway, this story opens with a pirate leaving a tavern to find some noble girl walking around near the docks after nightfall, whereupon she is accosted by a gang of hoodlums. The pirate decides he would rather be the one raping her instead. This coming right on the heels of a story about the guy who can’t sleep which immediately disregarded its premise to instead be about some mediocre efforts at comforting an assault victim, this collection is coming across as having a very weird prefixation with sexual assault. Come to think of it, the last short story collection I read, from a completely unrelated group of authors with a completely unrelated topic, also had a weird prefixation with sexual assault. Is this just a hot-button issue that everyone wants to write about these days? Is it just a fundamentally compelling idea that people tend to land on when they don’t have any better ideas? It definitely doesn’t crop up in the best works nearly as often.

The story’s definitely losing points for historicity, though. It treats the pirate as being an automatic cold-blooded killer just for being a pirate, like it’s a prerequisite of the job:

He had not lived this long in a trade like his without hacking up plenty of people far more deserving of pity than a back-alley rapist.

But pirates rarely killed anyone. Although they did rely on as much over-the-top brutality as they could muster whenever they did meet resistance, their standard tactic was to intimidate merchants into handing over insured cargo without a fight, because the merchants would lose relatively little once they collected their insurance payout, and certainly not so much that they’d be willing to fight to the death over it. While an entire pirate crew, as a collective, would eventually have to kill some people, an individual pirate could easily have a long career without ever once personally killing a guy. A pirate doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than the back alley goons serving as our antagonists in this scuffle. They’ve decided they’ll kill someone for cash if it comes to that, and that intention is something, but they don’t typically have a whole lot of actual experience with murder, and if they do, it’s probably because they were military sailors who went pirate when the war ended. Actually being a pirate doesn’t build up much combat experience at all.

Anyway, after the fight, the pirate decides the noble girl is too pretty to rape, and just walks away instead. That’s the end of the scene, but the story picks up in a tavern. Now he’s fighting a bunch of soldiers for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. From the setup conversation, it’s got something to do with that pale girl he saw earlier:

“Now what was that bilge that came sloshing out of your gullet?”

“None of your business, you sea rat!” spat the man with a broken nose as he leaked some scarlet onto a floor that was in no short company of stains.

“Well, you see,” Leon said as he flexed his fingers experimentally. “I happen to be in the business of pretty little alabaster girls. Especially when some military big shot has designs on her.”

So I guess some officer has designs on Leon’s (that’s our pirate’s name, incidentally) paramour, and they’re having a fistfight over it for no reason, which then escalates into a tavern-wide massacre, because Leon can take on an entire section of His Majesty’s finest like it’s nothing, because I guess “pirate” means “super villain” in this setting. He interrogates one of the survivors for the name of the captain who apparently has designs on the woman that Leon has decided now belongs to him:

The soldier squeezed his eyes shut and recoiled turning his face away. “Okay, okay! He said they were to sail for Ceasura through the Pitalis Current!”

I’ll save you a Google: These are not real places.

It turns out that this very pale woman that Leon’s after is Not Like Other Girls, but has instead fled from her manorial upbringing because of some vague fate she wished to avoid (safest bet by far is an arranged marriage), and for whatever reason she’s been abducted by an army (not navy?) captain along with some blonde, and the blonde uses her sexual charms to get everything she wants and is just not rebellious and free-spirited like black-haired girl is. Seriously, blonde hair:

Unaware of how close the lava was to the surface, one noble’s daughter flicked a long blonde curl so it rested between her breasts. The key to most of her problems could be solved by reminding people of the grandeur of her bust. She interlaced her fingers in her lap, and straightened her elbows to push her diplomats up.

The silence was only broken by the creaking of the ship, as it swayed dangerously up and down in the rough current. An antique chandelier clinked its glass hangings together, and they all heard something roll and then fall with a solid thud.

The blonde one glanced at the other girl to see if she was going to speak. She wasn’t. “I can assure you commandant, my father is a very wealthy merchant and loyal to the emperor. In fact he is a personal friend of admiral–”

Black hair:

The raven haired girl sat up quickly with a flutter of her eyelids, lips pursed and her head cocked to the side. “Firstly, I never called myself any type of lady. In fact I would call myself and you a girl, seeing as you look about my age. Secondly, I don’t see anything so terrible about a pirate.”

So yeah, we’re dealing with that level of trite.

The pirate, who Shanghais a crew who never again appear in the story (did he kill all of them and somehow manage to sail the ship anyway, or did he just decide not to bring any of them while boarding an enemy vessel?) manages to sneak onto the army(?) captain’s ship, rig it to explode, kill all the survivors with his pirate superpowers, and rescue/abduct the black-haired not-like-others girl.

I skimmed a lot of this story, particularly towards the end, because it’s just so enamored with how amazing its protagonist is to the point where it never puts him in any danger. He is constantly in total control of the situation even when he’s single-handedly taking on entire squads or even ships full of soldiers. This is the longest story in the collection and yet I’m getting a three-quarters length post out of it, because the extra length doesn’t really add anything except extra fight scenes for its protagonist to be unfazed by. If he’s never in any real danger, why bother with the fight against the thugs in the alley or the soldiers at the tavern? Why not skip right to the end where he takes on an entire ship full of sailors? It certainly doesn’t help that everyone’s super cliche. The captain is generically evil, the pirate is basically just Jack Sparrow except that he cuts people with his edge, the dumb blonde is a dumb blonde, and the black-haired girl is not like other girls. Honestly, if this whole premise has an interesting concept in it, it’s black-haired not-like-others girl becoming a pirate with her new paramour, but that would require shifting the focus away from Leon, a character this narrative is clearly very enamored with, and onto not-like-others girl, a character who this narrative clearly has no use for except as validation for Leon’s massacres.

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