Early in Chris Roberson's "Set the Seas on Fire" (Solaris 2007), an intellectual debate breaks out among the crewmen regarding the question: is there one ocean or many on this watery planet of ours? The protagonist of the novel, Lieutenant Hieronymous Bonaventure, takes the position that "There is, I put to you, but one ocean, around which the lands we know are arranged like a necklace of stone and tree. A true orbis terrarium, the circle of lands of which the ancients spoke, and which we are just now rediscovering to be the truth." Later, at the end of the novel, Bonaventure speaks again of the watery world: "Bonaventure knew well that there was but one sea, vast and unending."
Within the image of the "unending sea" we have the metaphor of the novel. Bonaventure as hero is, in a sense, "unending." As he should be, because, after all, he is a "pulp fiction" hero. However, there is another more important meaning in the image of the unending sea--a literary conclusion about the nature of genre, which I contend is Chris Roberson's true subject. In other words, in his literary weltanschauung there are no boundaries between the various genres. A historical novel can easily morph into a tale of horror and a hero in a tale of horror can step through a portal into another world. So "Set the Seas on Fire" is a "genre" bender, a mélange of pulp fiction tropes.
Chris Roberson, like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, is working within the confines of pulp fiction. Pulp fiction arose in inexpensive magazines in the 1920s and continued through the 1950s in mass market paperbacks. Pulp fiction contained a wide variety of genre topics: fantasy, detective, western, science fiction, adventure and westerns. Some writers of pulp mixed the genres, creating some of the more exciting and enduring stories. Additionally because the stories were short, the pulp writers learned how to tell an intriguing story concisely. Within a sentence or two the writer was knee-deep in the action.
In the first and last analysis, then, "Set the Seas on Fire" is a pulp fiction/heroic fantasy, tending toward horror, and should be read as such. And Chris Roberson is a meta-fictionist skillfully playing with the genre tropes. His precursors, on one hand, arise from film and horror, history and adventure, fantasy and science fiction; and on the other, there seems to be a hidden alliance with Jorge Borges and Paul Auster. To read the novel otherwise is to cause confusion.
Although the uninformed reader might stumble onto the book and think it was historical fiction, which it masquerades as, it is only historical fiction to the extent of setting and costumes. Its true progeny lies closer to the works of Robert E. Howard. In fact, I found myself several times as I was reading remembering Howard's stories of Solomon Kane, the 16th century Puritan adventurer. Roberson even goes so far as to name an island warrior and Bonaventure's adversary in love--Kane. There is also a conscious nod to Michael Moorcock and his von Bek novels.
Yes, it is true that Roberson grounds the novel in facts but that is only to heighten the vertigo you feel when the horror arrives.
The novel begins on a clear day in 1792 in England in one genre--the adventure tale. Children play on a majestic estate, an opening similar to the beginning scene of William Wellman's 1939 production of Beau Geste, which situates us in the world of Wellman and Curtiz. This is the tale of the hero arising from modest circumstances to become a hero. In chapter two, however, we are on a ship in the South Seas. Now we are in the world of the Bounty, on a British frigate, or maybe sailing with Sabatini's Captain Blood. I am sure that many readers compared it to Patrick O'Brien's "Master and Commander." Ah, we say, it is a nautical adventure.
Later the hero lands on an island paradise but there are rumors of monsters and demons. Eventually, Bonaventure falls in love like Fletcher Christian but he encounters grotesque beasts like Howard's Solomon Kane.
So, I think the pleasure of "Set the Seas on Fire" lies in four things: first, the convincing historical setting; two, the purity of the prose and the movement of the plot; three, the mixing of genre; and four, the expectation of surprise that arises from the knowledge that Roberson is playing with genre.
Of these four, I want to expand on the element of surprise or suspense. Roberson establishes the expectation of horror early with Bonaventure's encounter with the two Spanish castaways. From that point on the reader knows the other genre shoe will soon drop. But the question is how soon and exactly when. Roberson leisurely lead the reader down many paradisaical paths.
In conclusion, as a fantasy reader and a fan of pulp fiction, I found "Set the Seas on Fire" satisfying. However, if you are seeking another "Master and Commander" you may be disappointed. But if you like Solomon Kane and von Bek you will be happy with your choice.