The Scarlet Age of Piracy: The Devil’s Fire by Matt Tomerlin

The Golden Age of Piracy was anything but golden. The first thing I always thought of when I heard the term was, of course, those fantastic tales told in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean – you know, a silly protagonist meets a mythological or otherwise supernatural enemy and a slightly comedic action-packed adventure ensues. Pirates have long been romanticized like that, since well before Pirates of the Caribbean. Tomerlin’s novel takes our fictitious notion of what piracy was and keelhauls it completely. This book shows us a story of what piracy really might have been – all the blood and gore included.

The Devils Fire

The Devil’s Fire.
Matt Tomerlin, $12.95
ISBN: 978-0615916507

The book begins with a point of view chapter featuring the main character, Katherine Lindsay. Almost immediately, we learn of her stubborn nature in that she insisted to be taken along on her husband’s ship – something completely unheard of at the time. After all, bringing women aboard a ship was bad luck. It isn’t long before conflict appears on the horizon as a set of black sails, and the world Katherine Lindsay knew rapidly is sliced to ribbons, all due to her foolhardy request.

Another major character is Captain Griffith. He seems, at first, to be the enemy when he steals Katherine away to become his own wife, heedless of the fact that he had just brutally murdered her husband on his own ship. We learn through Griffith’s point of view chapters that he had turned to piracy as a result of mutiny against ruthless captains. Although almost none of the merchant sailors aboard Lindsay’s ship perished due to his promise not to harm them, he does declare he never makes such promises for the captains. The way the pirate treats Katherine Lindsay begins the spiral of her slow descent into fierce madness, but I’ll leave the gruesome details for the reader. The way Tomerlin describes the violence of pirates is more on-point for me than other authors of pirate stories have managed. The fact that the two aforementioned main characters always seem weirdly at odds, even when the seas are relatively calm, is what drives the narrative forward. Katherine Lindsay was Griffith’s bad luck, just as his crew predicted.

Katherine Lindsay isn’t the only character whose slow decent into madness is shown through aptly written chapters. Edward Livingston, the quartermaster of the ship on which Katherine was taken hostage, was by far the most violent of them all. He made the other pirates around him seem like women in a sewing circle – but this too was revealed piece by painstaking piece. At first, I was apprehensive of his character and how he made decisions in regards to things – but after a while, I grew to hate him. I hated how he purportedly solved his problems. In several instances, he resorted to torture if for no better reason than to watch his target suffer. All in the name of what? The good of the crew? As that same crew often murmured amongst themselves, Livingston was a monster. It takes some excellent writing for any reader to feel inclined to love or hate characters. It is an investment of much more than time to read a book so closely, so if an author can catch their readers in such a way, you better believe they’re the real deal.Griffith's Quote

Speaking of which, Tomerlin’s decision to use character point-of-view chapters was particularly ingenious – the storytelling is as diverse as possible through many different lenses. If you think about it, the only way a ship will sail is when all the crew works together to make it so. That being the case, each chapter fit together seamlessly. There didn’t seem to be any points where I was taken out of the narrative as I switched from the perspective of one character over another. Each chapter had a point to make or a specific detail of characterization to showcase, and did so in a way that made me wish I didn’t have to sleep, just so I could finish another chapter. 

The story really does tear down the classic “pirate story” stereotype, giving it a more realistic twist. It incorporates many details from history, including fictionalization of prominent figures of the time period. It utilizes real details, such as the earthquake which destroyed Port Royal, and the collapse of the pirate port, Nassau. It brings to light details about why certain sailors chose lives of piracy – because oftentimes, working aboard any other vessel would lead a man to the same grisly fate, only with less coin and even less power over his own life. The way history tells it, captains and quartermasters on other, supposedly honest ships could be even more cruel than pirate captains. The waters of the Caribbean really did run red, as the book description so morbidly proclaims.

It should also be noted that when Tomerlin describes the settings in any given chapter, there are realistic, factual details to cling to – such as blight-stricken livestock and pirates having nothing to live on but hardtack and rum towards the end of their voyage, or between raids. There’s also the truth that some pirates lost limbs in their service. If they didn’t die from injury, they died from disease and infection. Certain people who claimed to be surgeons on other ships were press-ganged into piracy as an attempt to stave off those dangers. Woven in among the narrative so naturally, these horrifyingly interesting facts bring the narrative to life, setting the tone of the work much darker than any other pirate story I have read so far. It is masterfully done in a way that even history buffs would appreciate, especially if they aren’t normally too big a fan of the classic pirate tales.

I believe that The Devil’s Fire is one of those rare gems in the literary world. Sometimes, it is hard to get your name out there when self-publishing – that world is also one of brutal competition. For instance, some authors must suffer snotty opinions from people who “only read books that have been properly published,” as one of my acquaintances said when I recommended the book to them the other day. To be honest, had I not been researching this very same topic, I may have never stumbled upon the work. But I’m glad I did, and even more glad am I to discover that there are two more books in this series. This brings up another point – self-published authors can be just as talented as those who have gone the traditional route, and sometimes maybe even more so. I think Tomerlin’s debut novel proves that point perfectly. Some of us don’t have a marketing bone in our bodies. Some of us aren’t graphic designers, and most of us aren’t very good copy editors. That’s fine. But a few of us are, and if they can produce books like this, I say self-publish away. Tell your story to the world however you can. That will always be the most important part of the process.

My final opinion on the book? If you loved stories like On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers or Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – or conversely, wanted to see more of the pirate’s side of the story in Treasure Island, I know you’ll love The Devil’s Fire. Give it a shot.

— This review can also be found on Goodreads & Amazon

K.M. Alleena is a Creative Writing Major at SUNY Oswego and has Anthropology and Native American Studies as her minors. Her primary genre is Poetry, but she has a deep love of Creative Nonfiction and Fiction. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys playing old video games and talking to parrots, often simultaneously. She has been published in her campus literary journal, the Great Lake Review, and also was a winner of Miracle Magazine’s Poetry Competition 2013 as well as SUNY Oswego’s Speak Up and SLAM! Spoken Word Poetry Event.


3 thoughts on “The Scarlet Age of Piracy: The Devil’s Fire by Matt Tomerlin

  1. While “like women in a sewing circle” may underestimate the hidden viciousness that is well concealed by embroidery ( 🙂 just kidding…mostly), this is an excellent post. I might just have to check this book out! Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Pingback: “Literary Citizenship” | Experiences with Language

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