Porto Bello Gold, by A. D. Howden Smith

July 19, 2011 at 13:05 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

4/10

A fitting tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic masterpiece? Yes. A fitting prequel? No. This is a good adventure book, but it is a hollow and feckless creature compared to Treasure Island. Howden Smith leaves the reader with a strong feeling that he has simply been name-dropping the pirates–Anderson, Bones, Pew, O’Brien, Silver–instead of building their back stories; some of the most exciting and thrilling of Stevenson’s characters are entirely neglected – Israel Hands particularly. This is a story about very plain men doing some very plain things, and there are few surprises and very little incentive for the reader to invest anything into the characters.

If any mistake deserves to be investigated more closely, it is Howden Smith’s decision to give a little too much attention to his antihero Andrew Murray. While he would certainly draw some justified criticism if he had included no original elements whatsoever, Murray is a pale pastiche of the debonair and civilised villain, but his inanity turns him into a buffoon. It is easy to feel cheated when one is hankering for stories of John Flint and Long John  Silver, only to end up with a poor man’s Captain Hook.

“Peter groaned as we crawled over the thwarts. ‘Like der waves is my stomach–oop–andt down. Now I be sick, ja!’ And he was.”

-Porto Bello Gold

Porto Bello Gold also suffers somewhat from pacing problems, with a very slow beginning and a conclusion that is badly rushed. But the book’s chief problem is that there is just no pressing need for either a continuation or for further exposition of Treasure Island: neither now, nor in 1924. Stevenson’s classic was brilliant not for its original plot, nor for its complex characters or thrilling action. It managed to conjure up a mysterious and legendary history for a treasure that became almost mystical to its characters and even its readers. Silver was a magnificent villain, not because of his shrewd low cunning, but because the looming ghost of a pirate king made every one of Silver’s blunders and his petty doublecrossing into a thing sailing out of a mist from a magical past, at once unreachable and yet suddenly, uncomfortably present. Porto Bello Gold took everything that was powerful in the original novel, and rather unfortunately bungled it.

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