Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Alice reviews Escape to Pirate Island by Niamh Murphy

Escape to Pirate Island cover showing a woman in a flowing red dress looking over the ocean at a pirate ship

This book! I want to take this book, parcel it into treasure map wrapping paper, and post it back in time to my fifteen year old self. Not that it’s a book for teenagers specifically, but it’s the book I craved so deeply back then. I loved it, it really did, and I hope you do too.

The story follows two daring ladies and their friends, the daring, smart smuggler Cat Meadows, and the brave, proud Lily Exquemlin, as they flee the day they lost everything and peg all their hopes on a ship and the hope of treasure. With pirates, betrayal, marooning, and swinging from the high ropes, this book is thrilling. You, my friend, are on the edge of an adventure.

It’s is a well-written tale, with an engaging and distinct cast of characters which all manage to come across and individual, self motivated people, with clear personalities. Perhaps the bad guys are little too bad guy without reason, but it wasn’t something I even noticed when I was reading as my heart was in my mouth all the way through for Cat, Lily, and their friends.

Sadly, despite being a pirate story, there is no apparent racial diversity in the book, and the only disabled character in the book gets killed off nice and quickly to put the main character down the path she needs to for this story to work. This is always frustrating with pirate stories, as pirates came from all corners of the world, and with sea surgeons hacking of every other limb to stop gangrene, there were plenty of seafarers who weren’t as able bodied as the cast of this story.

I grew up on the British coast and this story made me heartsick for the sea, for the promise of freedom that the horizon seems to promise, and why else would you be reading a pirate book? The romance was sweet and standard for a YA, which I feel is where the story tone sits best, but be aware it does have one ‘Mature’ scene. The story celebrates loyalty, yet understands loyalty.

Honestly? Read this story. It’s fun, well paced, well written, you lose all track of the real world when reading it… it’s a wonderful little book. I recommend it for anyone who is fed up of the mundane and wants a swashbuckling adventure alongside a cast of real people whom you’ll feel you know well.

Shira Glassman reviews Escape To Pirate Island by Niamh Murphy

Escape to Pirate Island cover showing a woman in a flowing red dress looking over the ocean at a pirate shipEscape to Pirate Island is basically just what it says on the tin–a rambunctious, seafaring pirate adventure full of treasure maps and double-crossing, only this one stars women who wind up loving each other, getting by in a man’s world by the sheer strength of their determination, each in their own way. The book’s timeline flows well and features several of the type of vivid scenes that would make a wonderful movie.

Cat is a young smuggler whose hometown adventures are cut short by 18th century cops; Lily is the daughter of a retired pirate captain left broke by his debts when he dies. They don’t even meet until we’ve already come to know both of them pretty well, which made me more invested in both of them as characters rather than putting all the story’s weight on just their relationship arc alone.

Murphy did a great job making all the scenes come to life without making the reading feel like work–I breezed through this book in two days. This is the kind of book that puts you right into the middle of the action over and over again without making any of it hard to follow–with Cat, we climb up cliff faces, get into fights, hide underground with conspirators, and even have a job interview! (Yes, a pirate job interview is just as intimidating as it sounds.) Lily’s POV sections were less compelling for me but I was still pretty invested in her happiness as a character. She gets the rug pulled out from under her rather a lot over the course of  the book and still holds her head high, refusing to let the undertow of life take her.

I was particularly entertained and enthralled by Cat’s storyline, with her cleverness and bravado and ability to adapt to a wild variety of situations. She’s married at the beginning of the book and her husband gets fridged as part of one of the book’s many MANY action scenes, so I was expecting her to be bi (obligatory bi-rate pun) but as the book unfolds it’s explained that she married her childhood bestie to get out from under her father’s thumb, a choice which I’m sure many real women of her time would find familiar. After her sexual encounter with Lily–which only takes up a page or two so if you’re looking for an action-adventure-and-feelings-heavy book rather than one with a lot of erotica, you’ve come to the right place — she realizes that she understands desire for the first time. That to me indicates a lesbuccaneer interpretation rather than bi-rate. (Yes, I just did that.) I also admire the author’s deftness in showing that Cat’s initial dislike and assumptions of Lily in reality came from a lingering dislike for her own upbringing, a lavish lifestyle she assumed Lily was both from and still enjoying. She was humble enough to backpedal as soon as she discovers her mistake.

There are many things I was afraid would happen in this book that didn’t — I love that she has a “found-father”-figure who doesn’t die. (Grizzled, tough older men who protect young lesbians instead of acting predatory toward them are very much a trope that makes me happy.) The women are threatened with sexual assault, but it stops at words. There isn’t any ethnically diverse representation, but that’s not as bad as having overtly racist tropes which I’ve encountered before in books set around this period. And though there’s a metric fuckton of double-crossing in this book Because Pirates, the tension between Lily and Cat over Cat’s behavior never lasts long enough to hurt the reader, and Cat isn’t betrayed by as many people as she could have been.

Props for the line “whose countenance was so livid that Lily wondered if the hair from his balding crown had been terrified into quitting his head.” Also, a possibly naïve comment: I grew up in South Florida and I was a little confused about how they could be so cold after it rained, once they were in the Caribbean, because it’s the kind of warm down there — and even up here, in summertime! — where rain doesn’t leave you chilled, if that makes any sense. It feels different from other places. But then again: that’s specifically Ft. Lauderdale/Miami; I’ve only been to the Caribbean itself on cruises in my teens and I don’t think it rained while we were there so I don’t actually know. And heaven knows it’s not that important of a detail; it just took me out of the story for 2 seconds.

I think this is self-published but I only noticed two minor copyediting errors; everything flowed nicely and I feel like I had a quality reading experience. By the way, TW for some uncomfortable and only partially challenged moments of whorephobia.
Shira Glassman writes fantasy and contemporary fiction where girls get to kiss. Her latest, Knit One Girl Two, features an indie dyer who meets a cute wildlife painter while looking for inspiration for her next sock club.

JJ Taylor reviews The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

the abyss surrounds us

In a future where pirates rule the open seas, the fleets the shore are kept at bay by genetically engineered giant sea creatures bonded to their ships and guided by their trainers. You want to read The Abyss Surrounds Us. You really do. It has pirates, sea monsters, queer lady romance, lady villains, pirate queen moms, an Asian-American lead character – it’s packed with all the things you’ve been wanting in your YA. Honestly, I think most books could benefit from a good dose of lady pirates.

This is fantastic sea adventure with a queer lady romance that doesn’t pull it’s punches. The fights hurt, the romance hurts, and it’s all worth it. This sea adventure ride is full of twists and turns and they start right away.

Spoilers ahead! I’ll try not to give too much away, but it’s hard to get to the heart of this book without some spoilers.

Cassandra Leung goes through an incredible journey. At the start of the story, she’s a teen just about to go on her first mission for which she’s been trained on all her life. By the end, she’s surviving and thriving in a completely different world. She transforms into a competent, brave, skilled commander of a Reckoner, and a clever and savvy fighter. She sense of herself and where she belongs, even if it means turning her back on everything she knows.

The world of Reckoners pulled me in from the first scene. I was convinced our future could look like this, with condensed political nations in the wake of rising sea levels, flooding destroying whole portions of continents. Like all good speculative fiction, the changes in the new world don’t seem that far off a possibility from our current world.

We feel the loss of Durga, Cas’ first trainee, throughout the whole book, which is about the only way I can tolerate animal loss in a story. It was awful, don’t get me wrong, but it was awful for Cas and the loss remains raw and informs her decisions all the way through the story, even in the end. It’s not for the faint of heart, though, and there are more vicious attacks of sea monster on sea monster further into the story. Cas knows what it means to turn a Reckoner on other Reckoners, and she knows what she’s done in training Bao, the Minnow’s Reckoner, and in using him as a shield in battle. It’s an adult awareness that marks part of Cas’ growth as a character. Bao is never the quiet friend that Durga was. He’s a beast, and Cas bonds with him as she raises him, but the circumstances of their relationship were too forced, and ultimately too violent for it to last.

And that brings me to The Pirate Queen. Santa Elena is a terrifying villain. She’s not a kinder version of a pirate just because she’s a mother; she’s cruel, manipulative, calculating, and she has no qualms hurting those who hurt her. She sets Cas and the crew against one another in a myriad of ways, and delights in the outcome, even when it’s violent. She’s dangerous from start to finish.

And Swift, oh, Swift, with her bird tattoo like her name and her ship brand on the back of her neck like the sword of Damocles. I fell for Swift as hard as Cas does, but she also remained unknowable until the very end. I loved the tension of their building romance, their struggle to find one another on equal footing, and I was disappointed that the two proto-pirate queens don’t get an HEA. I had several theories while reading about how the book would end, and none of them were anywhere near being right. Cas and Swift aren’t together, but at least they’re not apart. They face nearly as many challenges as they did at the start, which has kept them on my mind days after I finished the book.

Go get The Abyss Surrounds Us. You’ll suddenly find yourself hatching escape plans for Swift and Cas, or maybe you’ll be rooting for Santa Elena. On the ship full of cutthroat lady pirates, you can’t go wrong.

Warning for animal harm/death

Rachel reviewed The Locket and the Flintlock by Rebecca S. Buck

thelocketandtheflintlock

From Bold Strokes Books comes an unusual story of love amidst pre-Victorian England. The Locket and the Flintlock by Rebecca S. Buck starts in 1812 when Lucia Foxe, daughter of a wealthy British aristocrat, and her family are robbed by a band of thieves called Highwaymen. The thieves steal Lucia’s treasured locket and leave, but Lucia, bound and determined to get her locket back, secretly leaves home and pursues the outlaws. She soon meets their female leader, Len Hawkins, who on the surface seems vastly different from Lucia, but in reality shares a lot of common ground. The two, much to their surprise, become friends after a while, and later those feelings turn into undeniable love. But can gentlewoman Lucia and outlaw Len make a life together in a time when homosexuality was abhorred?

The Locket and the Flintlock  covers interesting topics, such as the social constraints women were faced with in the early 1800s, and how the poor barely had enough wages to live on and so many turned to a life of crime. The author did a good job highlighting these points, and the scenes where Len challenged Lucia on what society deemed “proper” rang true.

However, there were some things about the book that didn’t sit right with me. Lucia, never having been in a lesbian relationship before and unfamiliar with homosexuality, seemed to accept her feelings for Len too quickly. It felt to me that, a woman in Lucia’s time and society would have been more hesitant, afraid of being gay and done some serious soul-searching about it. But Lucia never really addressed this to herself, which I found surprising and unrealistic for the plotline.

At times, the two women’s stories were really absorbing and tense, but at others the book reiterated some of the same points which slowed the plot down. One unexpected twist felt a bit too convenient for Lucia and Len. And there were other moments in the novel that felt a little far-fetched for the characters, detracting from the story.

Though The Locket and the Flintlock wasn’t really my cup of tea, I applaud Rebecca S. Buck for all her research into the historical details of 1812 England and the last days of the highwaymen. The subject of a female highwayman isn’t touched on much, so it was refreshing to see that aspect of history acknowledged. Readers who love historical fiction, particularly in England, and women’s history should give The Locket and the Flintlock a try and see if it’s something they like.

Rachel reviews Taming the Wolff by Del Robertson

tamingthewolff

In this debut novel by Del Robertson, Taming The Wolff is a story of piracy, adventure, and love. Kris Wolff is a female pirate captain of The Wolfsbane who hides her true gender from most of her crew. She is aloof and reveals little about her past. She abducts a duchess and her two daughters for ransom. Alexis DeVale, one of the daughters, had been bound for an arranged marriage and now is captive on The Wolfsbane. She, like most others, believes Captain Wolff to be male. Kris protects her hostages from prying eyes, and though she and Alexis butt heads at first, an attraction between them is undeniable. Alexis soon discovers Kris’s secret, and wrestles with the idea of loving another woman. Meanwhile, The Wolfsbane is pursued relentlessly by naval officer Captain Jackson, who will stoop to torture and murder to obtain Kris. And during all this, Kris and Alexis must decide if they can have a future together.

Taming The Wolff gives readers insight to how being gay would be perceived in 1703, the year this book takes place. While Kris sees no problem with loving another woman, Alexis does. She was brought up in her family, society, and her church to think homosexuality was a sin. As a result, she has a hard time trying to reconcile her love for Kris. But that was a real factor back then; and still is today.

The characters of Kris and Alexis were complicated. I liked both women, but sometimes I found myself angry with them. I will not spoil the plot, but at one point, Alexis makes a sudden decision that to me seemed tacked in to the story. The explanation she gives for her action was rather unsatisfying, and I was thinking there had to be some better reason than what she was saying. When that turned out to not be the case, I was disappointed with the unexpected shift in the storyline. Also, Kris and Alexis had their arguments, like every couple. But some of the arguments seemed forced and interrupted the plot a bit. But maybe the purpose was to show how the two women were dealing with coming from two vastly different worlds and beliefs.

Those issues aside, the book had some good battle sequences and love scenes. Robertson accurately depicted the dangerous life of a pirate. There were many tense moments that had me wondering what would happen next. There were also enough twists and unexpected events to keep me reading on.

Taming The Wolff is a good book for those looking for adventure and surprises. Though not my absolute favorite, it can still be interesting and suspenseful.