Hot Off the Shelf: The Last Bookaneer

There are a lot of books right now being labeled as "the perfect beach read" and "the perfect summer adventure novel," but The Last Bookaneer truly earns the title. If you love mysteries, historical fiction thrillers, or, my personal favorite, books about books, you're going to love this.

From the synopsis on Goodreads:

book'a-neer' (bŏŏk'kå-nēr'), n. a literary pirate; an individual capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers must not have a part in

London, 1890—Pen Davenport is the most infamous bookaneer in Europe. A master of disguise, he makes his living stalking harbors, coffeehouses, and print shops for the latest manuscript to steal. But this golden age of publishing is on the verge of collapse. For a hundred years, loose copyright laws and a hungry reading public created a unique opportunity: books could easily be published without an author’s permission. Authors gained fame but suffered financially—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few—but publishers reaped enormous profits while readers bought books inexpensively. Yet on the eve of the twentieth century, a new international treaty is signed to grind this literary underground to a sharp halt. The bookaneers are on the verge of extinction.

From the author of The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl, The Last Bookaneer is the astonishing story of these literary thieves’ epic final heist. On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel. The thought of one last book from the great author fires the imaginations of the bookaneers, and soon Davenport sets out for the South Pacific island. As always, Davenport is reluctantly accompanied by his assistant Fergins, who is whisked across the world for one final caper. Fergins soon discovers the supreme thrill of aiding Davenport in his quest to steal Stevenson’s manuscript and make a fortune before the new treaty ends the bookaneers’ trade forever. But Davenport is hardly the only bookaneer with a mind to pirate Stevenson’s last novel. His longtime adversary, the monstrous Belial, appears on the island, and soon Davenport, Fergins, and Belial find themselves embroiled in a conflict larger, perhaps, than literature itself.

In The Last Bookaneer, Pearl crafts a finely wrought tale about a showdown between brilliant men in the last great act of their professions. It is nothing short of a page-turning journey to the heart of a lost era.

I should start out by admitting that I really didn't know much about Robert Louis Stevenson--other than knowing him as the author of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde--prior to reading this novel, so I was oblivious to the time he spent in Samoa. It was one of those things I just assumed the author look liberties with, but when I reached the end of the book, there were several notes about how Stevenson had actually lived in Samoa until his death and completed his final writings there.

If this surprises you as much as it did me, you might enjoy this curious bit of photographic evidence for proof.

Robert Louis Stevenson (middle) with his mother, wife, and stepchildren at Villa Vailima, their home in Samoa. Public domain since copyright has expired: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Louis Stevenson (middle) with his mother, wife, and stepchildren at Villa Vailima, their home in Samoa.
Public domain since copyright has expired: Wikimedia Commons

That's Stevenson there in the middle in the chair. And just like how I didn't know Stevenson had lived out his final years in Samoa, I didn't have any idea how the authors of times past navigated their profession in the days before copyright. The action in The Last Bookaneer hinges upon the consequences in living in a time where copyrights didn't exist and there was little to no retribution for a stolen manuscript. Can you imagine pouring your heart into your latest masterpiece--your only copy since paper is scarce--and having it ripped out from under you by a fellow under the guise of being a friend?

That was one of the huge appeals of this novel for me. Most of the time when you hear about secret societies, they're working underground to protect some secret thing upon which the whole world hinges in some fashion. The bookaneers, on the other hand, aren't protecting anything--in fact, they're hurting the very creators of the works they seek. Yet, because they steal manuscripts for the sake of publishing houses being able to provide readers with affordable, hot off the press books, the reader has the moral conflict of wanting to side with the author and empathize with the protagonist (which cannot be helped--a reader always sympathizes with the protagonist). As a reader, you can't help but squirm a little.

No, but really, you can't help but squirm a little as you're reading because of all the tension. There's tension between the bookseller, Fergins, and his bookaneer companion, Davenport; there's tension between Davenport and his rival bookaneer, Belial; there's tension between Stevenson and other white outsiders visiting the island; there's tension between Stevenson and his family, most of whom don't want to be in Samoa; there's tension between Fergins, Davenport, and the natives; there's tension between the natives; there's tension between the natives and the foreign entities attempting to rule their land; and I venture to say I'm leaving some out. There's a lot going on--a lot of relationships to bear in mind and a lot of political consequences. All these circumstances interweaving is what makes the ending so surprising and satisfying.

More than anything, I enjoyed the last 50 or so pages. The plot twist will send you reeling for a bit, until you realize that the little trail of foreshadowing breadcrumbs was dropped surreptitiously under your nose. The most underestimated characters are the ones least worthy of estimation, and the real last bookaneer harkens to the old biblical aphorism "the first shall be last and the last shall be first."

The Last Bookaneer is a swashbuckling adventure unlike any other. I found it enthralling as a historical fiction thriller, though in an age where piracy of content is practically the norm in the digital sphere, I found it appropriate and engaging for today's world as well. Whether you have your summer adventures planned or whether life's demands means your adventures will have to be contained within the pages of books, The Last Bookaneer is definitely worth diving into.

Got a favorite summer adventure story or a novel you can't wait to read this summer? Tell me in the comments below!

Note: I received this book as an advanced readers copy from the publisher for the purposes of honest review. I don't blog about books I don't like, so read on with assurance.

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