Flint and Silver is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island which strives to answer questions left hanging by that longtime favorite. However, Flint and Silver is also a self-contained yarn all its own and a fairly exciting one at that, which can be enjoyed by readers who haven’t read the original for many years, or even those who (*ahem*) might have neglected it altogether.
A quick recap: Stevenson’s tale concerns Jim Hawkins, a young English tavern-keeper’s son, who gets caught up in an attempt to regain a fortune in pirate’s treasure hidden by the notorious (and now dead) Captain Flint. Billy Bones, Blind Pew, Israel Hands, and Long John Silver are a few of Flint’s former comrades, and all get in on the act. Eventually Hawkins makes his way to the island, in the company of a ruthless band of pirates, and drama ensues. It’s all a thrilling enough tale, but one which contains a few gaps in its back story, if a reader is inclined to see them as such.
Flint and Silver seeks to address these gaps. Focusing on the early days of Joseph Flint and Long John Silver, the book recounts episodes from before Silver was a pirate or Flint had even made captain. A series of interwoven chapters skips among years and locales as the reader encounters the two men, witnesses their first meeting and initial partnership, and follows along as their friendship comes under strain. Eventually, rivalry and bad blood lead to a falling out. Billy Bones, Blind Pew, and the others all figure in the action, as does another character from Stevenson’s original story, the runaway slave Selena. She plays an increasingly significant role as she bounces between the affections of the two men, becoming important to each of them for different reasons.
John Drake keeps the pace fast and the action steady. We’re never more than a few pages away from a confrontation of some kind, whether a sea battle or face-to-face struggle or daring escape. The tone is relentlessly breezy: “A precious saint might have said no, and the Lord Jesus Christ certainly would have, but who wants one of them for a shipmate anyway?” Elsewhere we are informed that “Captain Crane was sick with fear ... for he knew about the pirate Flint. Indeed, every man, woman, and child in the Caribbean knew about Flint. In particular, they knew that any man daring to make a fight of it got sliced like pork.”
It’s all over-the-top, energetic fun, but it comes at a price. The tone prevents the proceedings from becoming too dark, which is an awkward match for some of the hideous violence described within these pages. Ultimately, there is a cartoonish feel to the whole thing, at odds with what is, after all, grim subject matter. “But Iain Fraser paid no attention to Flint. He ran aimlessly in all directions, issuing thunderous farts, with three and a half feet of serpent hung writhing and lashing from his right hand ...” It’s one thing to adopt a lighthearted tone when describing a drunken pirate or dimwitted crewman, but something else to use it when, say, describing a fatal snakebite or someone’s disembowelment or the thoughts of a man intent on rape.
Perhaps equally problematic is Drake’s inability to trust the reader. Often he presents a situation dramatically, only to pause and then explain exactly what he means, as if afraid the reader is a dimwitted crewman him- or herself, too dense to understand without help. Thus, after seeing Parson Smith’s blinding egotism that leaves him vulnerable to an increasingly mutinous crew, the narrator informs us that “[Smith] was so thickly armored in his own self-esteem that he never stopped to wonder what the crew would do with him once they got their hands on him”. Likewise, we witness Selena speaking cruelly to Flint because she hates him and has been his prisoner. Then we are told: “She was baiting him out of hatred, and the desire to hit back after being the victim for so long.” Yes yes—we get it. This kind of authorial intrusion violates the most basic show-don’t-tell injunction that children learn in the fifth grade.
Despite these flaws, the story is enjoyable; it moves quickly, leavens its seriousness with humor and vice versa, and offers a variety of exciting set pieces. The flavor is all suitably exotic, with scenes in Georgia and the Caribbean and of course aboard numerous ships. Bottles of rum and pieces of eight, parrots and cannon and one-legged men all make their appearance, and the whole things is good fun.
One can’t help feeling, though, that an opportunity was missed here. There’s nothing wrong with good fun—who doesn’t need more good fun?—but given the subject matter, there was the chance to explore a bit more seriously. Who knows? Maybe we’d have found something buried a little deeper.