Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.

Alexa reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’ve been obsessed with Mary Read ever since I played AC: Black Flag, and while nobody can live up to that interpretation of Mary for me, I was really excited to read a book about her and see a different take. I found that the title matches the book beautifully, because it is truly first and foremost a story of Mary, and her discovering herself and what she wants.

Mary and Anne are both bisexual women living among pirate men in different ways. They both have relationships with and long for men for most of the book, but at the same time, there is a budding attraction between the two of them that eventually wins. While I don’t think Mary is meant to be nonbinary, due to being forced to live her life as a man she had some “don’t belong to either gender” feelings that were personally relatable to me as a nonbinary person.

One thing that kind of ruined my enjoyment was that… every single men in this book is absolute trash (except for Paddy, who is golden, and Jack and Nat, who are mostly decent). But seriously, everyone other than them is a misogynistic, homophobic trash, and while this might have been realistic, it was not enjoyable to read about. Anne was abused by her husband in the past and spends the second half of the book trying to break free of him for good, while Mary experiences violence both as a woman, and as someone thought to be a gay man.

The ending dragged on a little for me. This book has very short chapters, and when I saw from the page number that I’m towards the end, I had six different chapter ends where I thought “oh, that would be a pretty cool ending sentence” and then it wasn’t. Everytime I thought this was the ending, the story just went on. In the end, I ended up really liking the /actual/ ending and how it all came full circle, but this was still a little strange.

One thing that might be interesting to people (especially people looking to fill a reading challenge prompt maybe… I’ve seen prompts like this before) is that this book has a dual timeline – there is a “present”, but there are also several flashback chapters that detail how Mary ended up where she was at the beginning of the book. Without spoiling much, I can say that I really liked how these two timelines “interacted” with each other and supported each other.

I had some mixed feelings about the book, but overall I liked it. It could have been heavier on pirate adventures, but I liked Mary’s character arc and discovering herself. Also, the cover is beautiful.

TW: physical abuse by spouse, (misdirected) homo- and transphobia, attempted sexual assault, general pirate-y things like violence and murder

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.