A review by Judith Tarr for Tor.
Scarface: Story of a Boy Pirate is one of Andre Norton’s earliest works, published in 1948—right before she began her long career in science fiction and fantasy. It’s a classic boy’s adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean style. The title character is a teenaged boy raised by a pirate captain; an old injury has left him with a badly scarred face, and the only name he remembers is this brutal descriptive term.
He lives with it without complaint and with surprisingly little emotional damage. His core is solid. He has a strong moral compass in spite of his upbringing.
After an unusually slow opening chapter in which Scarface and his tutor in both the sword and Shakespeare tell each other large chunks of backstory, the action finally gets going. Scarface confronts the wicked Captain Cheap and embarks on the Naughty Lass with a suitably piratical crew. Captain Cheap has a plan, and that plan runs counter to both good sense and the advice of his senior officers. He is heading for Barbados, where he intends to bring down its governor, Sir Robert Scarlett, and take his place.
This is more than a political move. It’s personal. And Scarface is part of it in ways he won’t come to understand until the end.
En route to their destination, the pirates capture a British ship and a British Army major. Scarface is ordered to look after the prisoner, bonds with him, and tries to help him escape once it’s clear what Cheap’s plans are for Barbados. The major is apparently killed in the attempt, and Scarface is caught, to be publicly flogged in port as part of Cheap’s evil plot.
While the rest of the pirates are slated for hanging, Scarface takes the Queen’s Pardon—and a new name. He dimly remembers being called Justin. Since he needs a surname, the clerk who writes up the pardon suggests Blade. That’s a nice strong name, and it describes his exceptional and ambidextrous skill with the sword.
The newly christened Justin Blade quickly meets the major’s shrewish sister (she has a terrible history with men, which explains her nasty temperament) and her spoiled-rotten fop of a son, Sir Francis. Justin finds himself put in charge of this annoying child, serving as tutor and swordmaster. He is also, once the Governor arrives, installed in the Governor’s house, where he continues to look after Sir Francis and refuse to provide inside intel about Cheap. Justin is not a traitor, even to the man who abused him.
A series of adventures culminates in Sir Francis’ falling into the hands of Cheap and his officers. Justin has to pretend to betray his Pardon in order to protect the ungrateful child. They both end up back out to sea, participating in yet another clever plot to take over the island and get revenge on the Governor for still-unspecified reasons. In the process, Cheap gives Justin a gold bangle with a damaged coat of arms on it, which he hides in his belt. And Justin succumbs to coastal fever.
This takes a while. When Cheap finally realizes how sick Justin is, he hands him over to what passes for a doctor among the crew, a sinister Black man whose medicines are mysterious but effective. In Justin’s case, the dose cures the fever but leaves him with no memory of anything since the Naughty Lass. This returns Justin to his old self and his old name, and no memory of anything that happened on the island. He goes back to being a reluctant pirate.
Cheap’s second clever plan is no more successful than the first one, and this time he doesn’t escape. Justin is accused of violating the Pardon he doesn’t remember, and is likewise condemned to hang. But he gets a last-minute reprieve, once the major and the Governor realize what’s happened to him. In the process, the now-forgotten bracelet resurfaces and proves its value.
Justin, it turns out, is the Governor’s long-lost son. As he struggles to process that information, he witnesses the last escape and ultimate end of the evil Captain Cheap. At the very end, literally on the last page, he gets over his long-standing dislike of the Governor, and they bond as father and son.
The abrupt about-face at the end is classic Norton. So are the problems with the plot. She did not often stumble in her pacing or plotting, but when she did, she tended to do it in particular ways. One was to get halfway through, apparently run out of ideas, and repeat the same plotline all over again with a slightly different ending.
That’s what happens here. Cheap’s first clever plot fails, but he escapes and comes back for more. Meanwhile Justin/Scarface, thanks to his amnesia, basically lives through the same thing all over again, replacing the major with Sir Francis. The major’s escape actually works; he gets word of Cheap’s plan to the Governor. Sir Francis by contrast is a nasty little brat who refuses to do the right thing, but that’s all right. Sir Robert and the major are ahead of the game anyway.
It’s clear Norton is trying to portray Cheap as the kind of very clever man who always outsmarts himself, but doing it twice over rather labors the point. Characterization was never her strength, and it shows. She doesn’t quite have the skill to do his complex personality justice.
She’s better served with Sir Robert, who is like a less morally reprehensible version of Cheap, and Justin, whose fundamental integrity helps him navigate a complicated series of challenges. Sir Robert in particular makes me think of a film that I’m sure Norton knew well, the 1935 Errol Flynn classic, Captain Blood. Here’s the man of good breeding who fell into piracy but redeemed himself and ends up becoming the Governor. This is almost like a sequel, complete with lost love and long-lost heir.
And of course, as a reader in 2020, I can’t help but think of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It’s all very much in-genre. Pirate ships! Letters of marque! The Lords of Tortuga!
It’s not one of Norton’s best, by far, but it’s fun. That’s really all it needs to be.
Next time I’ll be returning to her science fiction canon with Iron Cage.