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Voyage of Slaves

Style: Weak → Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Unobjectionable

In Brief: Easy-reading adventure story with heroism and friendship. Simple characterisations. Surprisingly many violent deaths.

Cover of Voyage of Slaves

Author: Brian Jacques

Series: Castaways of the Flying Dutchman

Publisher: Viking

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Children+

Period: 18th C

Setting: Mediterranean Sea

Genres:  AdventureHistoricalSeafaring


Characters:

  • Ben the 14-year-old boy & his dog Ned are the castaways of the Flying Dutchman, never growing older and always trying to help other people.
  • The Travelling Rizzoli Troupe are a friendly troupe of Italian entertainers. They rescue Ned from the sea and they and Ben help each other when they are taken by slave-traders.
  • Al Misurata is a slave-trader who captures first Ben and then the Rizzoli troupe.
  • Eli ben Shimon is a seatrader who helps Ben to escape after Ben has rescued his grandson Joshua from a shark.

Synopsis:

Ben is captured by slave traders while Ned is rescued from the sea by friendly travelling entertainers who are themselves taken by the slave traders under false pretences. Ben & Ned and the Rizzoli must help each other to escape and to stop the slavers' activities. And Ben must decide how much he likes the girl Serafina whom he must eventually outlive.

Notes:

This is an easy-going adventure story with a lad and his dog helping a troupe of entertainers to outwit a slaver and his people. As well as that you have a mildly poignant love interest between Ben, the Dashing Hero, and Serafina, the Dusky Maiden. There's friendship and romance, nobility and heroism. Good triumphs over evil at the end, but not without tragedy. This is the third in the Castaways series by Brian Jacques, author of the phenomenally successful Redwall series, so someone likes this stuff.

But there are problems, none terribly serious but which taken together make the book less attractive. The simplest of them is that it's not especially well written. The plot is wooden and episodic (I lost track of the number of times the Rizzoli broke out of their cabin and then went back in again). The characters are largely cardboard cutouts and the language could easily be followed by an 8-year-old. The dialogue between Ben and Ned in particular is excruciating. All this wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the book was clearly for 8-year-olds (although even younger children deserve some quality in their reading matter). But you have a young teenager as the main character and a plot which includes several violent deaths, all of them I think by the apparently good guys! None is entirely without cause, but I find it striking that while the evil slave trader and his minions are clearly the ones to boo and hiss, they're not the ones who kill people when other remedies were available. (Although they'd like to be, given the chance).

More fundamentally, though, I can't help feeling that this book and the series as a whole is wasting its opportunities. It has a great premise with a dramatic prologue: Ben and Ned are cast away from the Flying Dutchman just as God's Angel (the author's term) curses the ship and its captain for blaspheming. Ben & Ned are caught in the shipwreck, so to speak, by a benign version of the curse: they will walk the Earth, never growing old, able to talk silently to each other, able to speak any language, encouraged to Do Good. They're literally on a Mission from God and even if the reader doesn't believe in God, Ben does, witness his conversation with Al Misurata regarding his right to keep slaves.

By the time we reach this book, the boy and his dog have been travelling for nearly 100 years, never able to settle down for long, as you'd soon have to move on when you remain young as everyone around you ages. They must have amassed a store of experience and wisdom. But none of this shows: they're about as shallow as the Secret Seven. Their conversation never seems to rise above the level of banter and moral platitudes. They might just as well be a 14-year-old boy and his dog. Which is a great shame as it squanders the series' main proposition, and the opportunity for a character with whom readers might identify who has a better idea what it's all about. It's not as though I expect long speeches, deep philosophy, or a preachy manner, but there should be something to lift the story above the appealing-but-shallow adventure storyline. For different treatments of a similar theme, try The Homeward Bounders or The Voyage of the Arctic Tern.

Still, there is an unusually sympathetic view of Christianity, which is a blessing in a modern book, and if Ben & Ned don't act any more than their apparent ages, at least they're broadly noble and friendly. You could go further and find worse.

Themes:

  • Slave trading
  • Living forever

Ned learned, by listening to the guards, that the girl and the three boys were bound for Tripoli, to be auctioned off at a private sale. Had they come from wealthy families, all four could have ben ransomed to their kin. But they were only ordinary slaves, with no particular talent or outstanding features, sent to the selling block by the callous decision of their captor. Bomba did not accomapny them. Ben and Ned watched him closely — he was constantly seen around the house and its spacious grounds. Having fallen into disfavour with his master, the big slave driver blamed Ben for his ill fortune. He would glare and mutter dire threats whenever he saw the infidel boy.

Saturday 20th January 2007