Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

The Pirates And The Nightmaker The Pirates And The Nightmaker
by James Norcliffe

Supplied for review by Random HouseNew Zealand

Reviewed By: Jacqui Smith

I’m not sure whether Norcliffe is channelling Robert Louis Stevenson or J.M. Barrie (or both) in this rollicking fantasy for older children set primarily in the Caribbean in the Golden Age of Piracy – the early 18th century. The historical background and geography are very well researched, and Norcliffe’s prose is a delight to read, beautifully evoking the style of days gone by. And he comes up with some great lines!

It begins with in the aftermath of a mutiny, and our narrator, a young loblolly boy, servant of the inebriate ship’s doctor, is adrift with the ship’s officers and their passenger, a certain Mr Wicker, in a jolly boat. Mr Wicker is no ordinary individual, he transforms our young hero into something no longer exactly human, an invisible flying boy with gorgeous green wings. This saves his life from the hungry men trapped with him in the boat, and also enables him to save their lives. Because among those few people who can see him is Sophie Blade, daughter of the notorious pirate, Jenny Blade, and he is able to enlist her help to rescue them. But it’s only just begun. Mr Wicker has a purpose, he means to find a certain astrolabe which has the power to bring night in the day. It’s in the hands of the Spanish, and he has a plan to retrieve it. Needless to say, that plan involves a certain invisible flying boy.

It was all going very well, until I got to chapter 18. Here, Mr Wicker takes the loblolly boy on deck and asks him if he knows his stars, and gets him to point out those he knows, including Sirius. He then instructs him in the use of an astrolabe, showing him how to point it at Sirius. So far so good. Then, he goes on explain that the astrolabe he seeks is designed to find Sirius even in sunlight and to say, "At this time of year, Sirius is directly behind the Sun". Now, I’m not an astronomer, but I do know two things. First, Sirius is not in one of the Zodiac constellations, and so is never directly behind the Sun. Second, if you can see a star at night, it cannot be on the other side of the Sun from the Earth. I wouldn’t make an issue of it, if it wasn’t critical to the story, but it is, and it wouldn’t have been hard to fix. Personally I would have picked Antares in Scorpio – an easy constellation for a boy to know, and Mr Wicker could have had him pointing out Orion (which although not on the Zodiac, is also distinctive, and is almost opposite Scorpio). And Antares is a dying star, a red supergiant… which would have actually worked better in the story. Basically, when astronomy is critical to the plot, I’d advise the author (and/or his editor) to consult an astronomer.

Okay, so I got over it, rewrote that chapter in my head, changed all references to Sirius to Antares and carried on. The plot resolves itself neatly, people get (or don’t get) what they deserve, and there is a delightful twist at the end that really impressed me. I’d like to see the errors fixed in later printings, but I’d still commend this novel to older children, especially those who are interested in pirates. Definitely a more solid read than much of the fantasy fiction for young people being published at the moment.

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