In the age of piracy in the New World, an English privateer is tasked by the governor of Jamaica with sacking a treasure-laden Spanish galleon, resulting in a series of escalating adventures that involves every cliché of a grand swashbuckling tale. Charles Hunter is an oddity in 1660. He is Harvard-educated, but handy with a sword and pistol. He's fearless, but knows full well the dangers of the age, and only takes on risks he himself chooses. He's a rogue with a checkered past, but nevertheless commands the respect (however grudging at times) of the lowborn and the high.
So it is that he finds himself in the mansion of Sir James Almont, the English governor of the royal colony of Jamaica, being persuaded to use his specialized skills to seize El Trinidad, a heavily-laden Spanish treasure ship which Almont knows is currently moored on the nearby fortress island of Matanceros. In the late 17th century, Spain is at the height of its power, while England is barely clinging to their tiny outposts in the Caribbean. The hope is that taking El Trinidad will help balance the score. The Spanish, though, know that El Trinidad is a fat target, and so they have tasked Cazalla, a known killer of pirates, to protect its cargo.
Hunter agrees, but only if he gets a large portion of the treasure, and if he gets to choose his crew himself. The governor readily agrees. Hunter then sets out across Jamaica to round up his veteran crew, and we get an extended view of life in the semi-lawless colony town of Port Royal: a dangerous mix of prostitutes and drunkards, pirates and merchants. Everyone is looking to get rich quick, while also desperate to avoid the constant risk of premature death – whether from disease or the point of a sword – which hangs over the island like a cloud.
After he gathers his crew and buys the necessary provisions, Hunter sets sail for Matanceros. Unfortunately for them, they run right into Cazalla's massive warship on the open sea. Hunter and most of his crew is taken captive. But with the help of the Governor's niece (who had previously been kidnapped by Cazalla and is apparently the Governor's ulterior motive for hiring Hunter), they escape, and, under cover of darkness, continue on to Matanceros.
Matanceros is every bit the fortress Hunter had feared it would be. But he came prepared. Rather than attack from the front – thereby facing its heavy harbor cannons and garrisoned towers – Hunter lands at the rear of the island with a small detachment. They then slog their way through rough jungles and climb an "unclimbable" sheer cliff which serves as the rear defense of the fortress. Once inside, everyone has a job to do. Some locate the treasure ship and prepare to board it. Others rig explosives to distract the soldiers and disable the harbor cannons. Hunter sets out to find the Governor's niece. With her in hand, he gives the signal. The bombs go off. Mayhem ensues. Hunter finds himself face to face with Cazalla. After a vicious fight, Hunter kills him. While his own ship provides covering fire at the mouth of the harbor, Hunter takes command of El Trinidad and they all escape.
But more trouble follows. Cazalla's second-in-command chases in Cazalla's warship, but El Trinidad, an enormous galleon in its own right, is able to absorb enough shots and, with some explosive shot rigged by one of the crew members, sends the enemy warship to the bottom of the ocean. But even more trouble ensues. There is a storm and an absurd battle with a giant kraken. The crew suffers heavy losses, and El Trinidad barely manages to limp home.
Once there, Hunter receives suspicious news. He is informed that the Governor has taken ill, and his secretary, who never liked Hunter, is now in charge. The secretary promptly has Hunter arrested for attacking the Spanish without proper authorization. During his trial for unlawful piracy, his own second-in-command, Sanson, gives testimony against him, making his whole story seem a lie. It's only when Hunter shows the incredulous judges the huge sucker marks on his body from the kraken that they realize he might have been telling the truth. They grudgingly send him back to his cell while they decide what to do with him.
Meanwhile, the residents of Port Royal rise to his defense and free him from jail. Hunter then confronts the secretary and the traitorous Sanson at the Governor's Mansion. Neither is prepared for a battle with the vengeful Hunter. He easily kills them both and frees the Governor, who was not really sick but had been under house arrest while the secretary acted in his name. Hunter is absolved of any wrongdoing and becomes a local hero. But he realizes, to his everlasting frustration, that knowledge of where Sanson buried the other half of the El Trinidad treasure died with him...
Best part of story, including ending:
This is a frustrating book to review. Apparently, it was found "finished" on Crichton's computer after his death, and published posthumously. His editor and agent both claim that it's done, that this is the version Crichton intended to be published...but I highly doubt that. The novel is a mess. There's no real structure to the plot: major events erupt and fade away far too quickly, and minor events get dragged out for far too many pages. It feels like a clean (in terms of grammar, spelling, etc), but very, very early draft. Had Crichton lived, maybe it would have gotten another revision, and maybe that revision would have made it into a readable story. But it's just not there yet.
Best scene in story:
The final assault on Matanceros was easily the best part of the book. That scene alone, with its meticulous setup and escalating suspense, almost makes this worth a read.
Opinion about the main character:
Hunter is more or less untouchable, which makes him impressive to watch, but also ultimately pretty boring...since you never really feel that he himself is in any existential peril. Thankfully, he has an interesting crew whose deaths (or close escapes) make you care enough to read on.