Sir Oliver Tressilian is the elder son of a man remembered by people as a foul-tempered despot and some of that bias has passed on to his son. Sir Oliver has paid of his father’s debts and made his fortune by privateering in the name of the Queen, piracy by a gentler name. Now he is in love with Lady Godolphin, who has had a gentling effect on his troubled soul. But all is not well, for Lady Godolphin’s brother, Peter, intensely dislikes Oliver due to their Guardian’s dislike of the man, a grudge his father held against Oliver’s father and the fact that he is amorously involved with a harlot with whom Oliver’s brother, Lionel is also involved with. Lionel kills a somewhat drunk Peter, in a fight over the strumpet in a duel, but without witnesses, he is afraid of being called a murder. Oliver loves his brother dearly so he gives his word not to reveal Lionel, even though people begin to suspect Oliver himself, even the Lady he loves. Slowly the countryside turns against Oliver, but the biggest betrayal comes from Lionel himself, whose cowardly mind projects his own deficient scruples onto his brother, framing him and arranging for him to be trepanned, kidnapped and sold into slavery to the Barbary Coast.
Oliver is kidnapped by an old acquaintance who seeks to reveal to Oliver the betrayal of his brother, at a profit to himself, but his ship is overtaken by a Spanish galleon and sunk. The captain and Oliver are pressed into slavery, manning an oar on a Spanish ship, until Oliver’s humanity is almost completely stripped from him. He is liberated by the chief of the Barbary corsairs, Asad. Oliver, in contempt of the way he has been treated by his Christian brethren and Lady Godolphin, converts to Islam and becomes one of Asad’s lieutenants, carving a legend from his vengeance against the Spaniards and any other Christian ship that he happened up. His followers give him the name Sakr-ul-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk.
Oliver is infamous across the Christian world, and lauded the greatest sword of Islam in the Muslim world. He is rich beyond any man’s desires, commands a fleet of ships and is beloved as a son to Governor Asad. But his own rage against his brother and former love, coupled with the conspiring wife and son of the Governor, everything begins to fall apart.
This book is written with a decent amount of research, but in parts is inaccurate in regards to Islam, perhaps based on the fact that Sabbatini only had access to Orientalist material. Despite this biased starting point, i.e. overly obsessed with fabled riches, hareems, colourful garments and slavery, Sabbatini does well to rise above the misinformation. A few points that I would like to clear up is that the treatment of slaves seems at odds with Islamic laws that compel the owners of slaves to treat them as if they were members of the family and the fact the freeing slaves was considered the greatest act of charity, the overall aim becoming then to abolish slavery by making it untenable. But profiteering of slavery seems to have overpowered these values, and the lot of galley slaves was the most abominable, both by Christians and Muslims. Also the ill-treatment of women, especially wives, goes against what is taught by Islam. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Sabbatini’s understanding of Islam seems to model it on Christianity, giving Mohamet (the Prophet Muhammad) almost a similar status as Jesus holds in Christianity. The Prophet Muhammad was very clear in his instructions that he is only a man that has been sent as a Messenger from God, albeit the last of all Prophets.
Despite my misgivings of these details, important details from a historical point of view, they have little bearing on the actual plot. The story is well-written as is to be expected from the author of Captain Blood and Scaramouch. As a character, I prefer the genius and gentlemanly ways of Captain Blood to the vindictive Sir Oliver Tressalian, but I feel that the story-telling itself and the structure of the novel, the Sea Hawk, is superior to Captain Blood and its sequels.
Again, this is a must for Sabbatini fans, those who enjoy a good adventure story and fantasy readers too. A thoroughly good read.