Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Reavers by George Macdonald Fraser

George Macdonald Fraser's last novel wasn't one of the Flashman Papers, which is a minor sadness -- but we fans of the series knew at this point that Fraser would never live to tell all of the sordid and fascinating tales of Flashy's very long, disreputable life. But The Reavers isn't a "good enough" book: it's a rollicking adventure, in a milieu Fraser knew well (the Scottish Borders in the reign of Good Queen Bess) in a mode he pioneered with his fine novel The Pyrates: a Hollywood Historical, the literary equivalent of a great old swashbuckling movie, with enough attention to accuracy to warn the reader when it was going completely off the rails and enough panache and style to keep that reader from ever minding.

The Reavers is an entertainment, and Fraser makes it clear, early on and repeatedly throughout the novel, that it's not to be taken seriously. (He knows his history, even if the book doesn't.) So he mixes authentic Elizabethan details and words with stage directions and business, keeping his eye the whole time on the fact that he's telling a story. (As the foreword starts off, "This book is nonsense. It's meant to be.")

Fraser also has harsh words for a kind of reader often encountered in the SFF world:
...we shall tell them that it befell on a certain February 2 -- but make no mention of the year, save that it was sometime between the foundation of Kiev University and the discovery of Spitzbergen, and they can make what they will of that, my masters. Why such reticence? Because the moment a romantic story-teller starts committing himself to actual years, and similar pretensions to strict historical fact, his character is gone, being at the mercy of nit-picking critics who will take gloating delight in pointing out (for example) that Attila the Hun couldn't possibly have studied Monteverdi's second madrigal book, because it hadn't been published in his day, see? Nor were pretzels available in the '45 Rebellion, Out upon them, pedants. (pp.4-5)
I wish more writers would include similar disclaimers; it might not stop the Legion of Internet Whiners, but it would make them seem even more petty and silly, and I'd settle for that.

In any case, at the center of The Reavers is Lady Godiva Dacre, the requisite fiery redhead (accompanied by her faithful handmaiden, Mistress Kylie Delishe, a slightly shorter and more voluptuous version of the same general idea, upholstered in blonde for contrast), who is traveling to one of her far-flung possessions, Thrashbatter Tower, on the disputed English-Scottish borders. Of course bandits strike, and of course Lady Godiva has to be rescued by a mysterious rogue...who turns out to be more roguish than he appears at first.

Soon Godiva is torn between two men, both dashing and accomplished and each the deadly secret agent of a monarch (England's Elizabeth and Scotland's James) -- Archie Noble and Bonny Gilderoy. And all three are racing to foil a dastardly Spanish plot -- complete with an oily monk, devious courtier, violent Highland chieftain, murderous dwarf, calculating wizard, and mysterious femme fatale -- to replace King James with an impostor and wreak general havoc.

Much derring-do ensues, along with a lot of humorous dialogue in cod-Elizabethan and copious sidebar commentary by Fraser. It's impossible to take The Reavers completely seriously, but it tells a romping great yarn with yards and yards of style and wit. Best of all, there's no chance at all of inadvertently learning anything, so The Reavers is a perfect beach read.

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