Recently, I decided to re-read one of his most well-known novels, The Sea-Hawk.
Our story opens in Elizabethan Cornwall, where the young privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian is determined to marry his love Rosamund Godolphin despite her brother's objections - there has been bad blood between Tressilians and Godolphins for generations. When Rosamund's brother is discovered lying dead in the snow with a trail of blood leading to Sir Oliver's door, Rosamund becomes his enemy - but not half as deadly an enemy as Lionel, the younger brother Sir Oliver is trying to shield.
A rollicking tale of love, hate, and betrayal ensues, sweeping its characters from the cold coast of Cornwall to the blue sweep of the Mediterranean where the corsairs of Barbary ply their trade, led by the mysterious and inscrutable Sakr El-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea...
I was captivated by this story the first time I read it, but this time I came away feeling that the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. After all, The Sea-Hawk has everything...duels, pirates, treachery, kidnappings, galley-slaves, romance, palace intrigue, a gutsy heroine, moral dilemmas, and more. It's exciting. The hero and heroine both do terrible things to each other, only to repent of them later. There's a real sense of eucatastrophe when their hilariously tormented love-affair finally comes right, and I felt I could really cheer for Rosamund as a heroine in the final chapters, when she comes in to save the day rather like Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Sometimes Sabatini clicks for me. I've reread both Captain Blood and Bardelys the Magnificent a number of times, and both of them are hugely enjoyable. The Sea-Hawk was awfully close, but never quite closed the deal. Partly it could be the odd pacing. The first third of the book occurs in Cornwall five years before the second two-thirds of the book in Algiers, which gives the story a slightly disjointed feeling. Much of the middle section is taken up by the villainous harem intrigues featuring the wife of the basha of Algiers, a character who didn't interest me in the least. And then there's the main character's rather flippant attitude toward religion, as he sees no problem with changing his allegiances at the drop of the hat for personal gain.
These are drawbacks, but I think the most unsettling thing, for me, was the centrepiece of the book, in which the heroine is sold to the hero in the slave market at Algiers. It makes for good melodrama as he takes her home and gloats over her, and the second half of the book goes a long way towards redeeming him as he starts to realise that a) he still loves her and b) his lust for revenge has put her in terrible danger. However, it's the old have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too trap so many authors fall into: Sabatini has obviously gone to such outrageous lengths, shifting his characters through many an implausible imbroglio to maneuver them into position, just so that this scene can happen. Although the characters spend much of the second half of the book regretting that the scene did happen, it did happen and we got our guilty frisson out of it.
So, much of this book was pure fantasy, and in retrospect, a rather unhealthy fantasy to boot; but all the same, it was a fun read, with an ending that satisfied. The Sea-Hawk falls on the guilty end of the guilty-pleasure scale, and I'm not convinced it justifies its existence. But, it still has some good elements...
How's that for a rousing recommendation?
Guess what? They made a film very loosely based on The Sea-Hawk, starring Errol Flynn as the titular pirate! Rather understandably, given the book's structural oddities, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, except for being set during the reign of Elizabeth I and featuring a privateer as the main character. It's not a bad black-and-white swashbuckler though.