Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 24, 2011.
I’m breaking the mold here with some nonfiction, but when I want to read about pirates nothing so pathetic as genre conventions is going to stop me!
Look at the cover of Badass, by Ben Thompson. You may notice that the chick standing a little above the viking dude and bitchin’ centurion is Anne Bonny, my favorite pirate of all time, and she is wielding a gun with a combination of sexiness and overpowering rage previously unknown to the brotherhood of seafarers. Badass is not necessarily a book about pirates, it is a book about badasses in general from Antiquity (“Destroying your enemies from the beginning of human history to the fall of Rome in 476 CE”) all the way to The Modern Era (“Mechanized chaos and full-auto destruction: WWI to 2009”). However, there is an entire chapter devoted to The Age of Gunpowder (“Blowing crap up from 1453 to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914”), and within this chapter are uproariously funny profiles of Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. Horatio Nelson – who certainly wasn’t a pirate but was a badass naval officer and all-around inspirational gent – is also featured, as is Napoleon. Alongside the profiles about specific historical figures there are bonus snippets of fun information about aspects of the time period in question, so when one reads about Blackbeard one will also learn about other badass pirates and the unpleasant effects of scurvy. After reading this book, you’ll be full of all sorts of impressive knowledge, even if you didn’t enjoy history in school.
The chapters on these ladies and gentlemen of seafaring history are pretty short but hot-damn are they funny, and it’s nice to know that there is a history-themed book in the world written by a dude who isn’t afraid to call Anne Bonny and Mary Read “face-breaking hellions,” after spending several sentences discussing the fact that they did, indeed, have boobs.
People who have stumbled upon Thompson’s website, badassoftheweek.com, will not be surprised by the book’s tone, which sounds a lot like a college guy trying to explain to his friends the awesomeness of historical figures after several beers and too many video games. Even those of us who aren’t familiar with the website will easily be able to appreciate Thompson’s writing style, because while he does refer to Nelson’s mistress as “pretty much the hottest babe in the British Empire,” he also understands his history and can paint a pretty accurate picture of the badasses in question without detracting from the informal and enthusiastic style of writing. Sure, he mostly concentrates on their violent habits and astounding victories, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who picks up a book with this cover and title will be looking for entertaining tales of death and destruction rather than a comprehensive look into the economic and social histories of civilizations. If you want gory details and funny anecdotes about some of the most violent characters in history, this is the book for you. If you are offended by curse words and sarcastic sexism, or grossed out by stories of french pirates eating their prisoners’ hearts (and then being ironically eaten by cannibals themselves) then you should probably look for something more mature and way less entertaining.
I have forced myself to understand that not every historically-minded reader of this blog is quite as enthusiastic about piracy as I am, and while I am very disappointed in you guys, you will probably like this book anyway. There is a chapter in the section on the Middle Ages about Wolf the Quarrelsome (“Mysterious barbarian leader who only appears in history twice – and both times he’s kicking someone’s ass,”) and if you’re more of a modern military history fan you could read about Manfred von Richthofen (“The Red Baron struck fear into the hearts of everything over the skies of Europe, except maybe a few species of birds.”)
Thompson writes for our generation; the generation of people born in the later decades of the 20th century who want sarcasm and memorable quips to be prevalent in every conversation and think all dialogue should resemble something scripted by Tarantino or, perhaps, Lemony Snicket. There’s no beautiful prose here but you will laugh out loud at least once in every chapter, and when people look at you strangely as you giggle uncontrollably in a cafe you can think smugly that – were Blackbeard still alive – he would probably swashbuckle them to death for the insult.