Monday, July 15, 2024

Scourge of the Seas A Treasury of Seafaring Adventure and Diversity

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Ahoy, mateys! Time for something a little different in the book review department. For all my focus on fantasy and science fiction, I have a deep-seated affection for pirate stories. Well, a certain kind of pirate story. A lot of pirate-themed media leans toward the, ah, shall we say, non-diverse spectrum. Surprise! I like my pirate stories inclusive. Enter Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), (Scourge), a collection short stories by multiple authors with well-written female characters, various cultural and historical settings, and characters from a wide array of cultures, backgrounds, ages, and marginalizations. Scourge even has non-human pirates as well as inter-dimensional and spacefaring ones.

So, avast ye landlubbers and prepare to be boarded by the most diverse cast of pirates you’ve ever read.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

An anthology of pirate stories from the historical to the fantastical and beyond!

From the Introduction:

“I wanted an anthology with some of that diversity and range, so when I put out a call for pirate stories, I encouraged international contributors and made it an “open to all orientations and sexualities” call. I was very pleased to get nearly 100 submissions, from a total of fourteen countries. I read about lesbian pirates, gay pirates, bi pirates, transgender pirates and heterosexual pirates, as well as a number of tales in which sexual orientation wasn’t specified. I got stories set in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and outer space, amongst other locations. Stories were set in ancient Greece, in Viking-era Scandinavia and in the Golden Age of Piracy, along with many other time periods. It made for some terrific reading.”—Catherine Lundoff, Editor

The Good Stuff

From the hundred submissions received, Catherine Lundoff chose fifteen, and as she said, they make for terrific reading. Lundoff did her selection process well. Scourge has a strong sense of cohesion to it despite fifteen different authors, each with their own tone, style, themes, and primary characters. Some stories are stronger than others, but that’s to be expected in my experience.

As a whole, I appreciated the prevalence of unique, fleshed out female characters. It’s rare to have so many women playing so many different roles in pirate stories. Not all of the stories are about women, though, yet that doesn’t mean that the other characters don’t also break the mold of what one normally sees in pirate-themed media. One of my favorite stories features a gay man who is the opposite of toxically masculine. The final story basically gives us a chinchilla version of Steven from Steven Universe (trust me, it’s delightful).

Scourge for the most part avoids a lot of the nastier elements of pirate stories. While it’s often romanticized, pirate stories can also be a genre dominated by whiteness, toxic masculinity, homophobia, and graphic violence (often directed at women). Scourge flat out rejects whiteness and Euro-centrism. Where the rest are concerned, any toxic masculinity, misogyny, or homophobia is depicted as negative and harmful. Something to be fought against rather than accepted as ‘the way things are/were’. Many of the stories go out of their way to avoid violence from the protagonist unless provoked, highlighting that even piracy doesn’t have to be grimdark and brutal.

Moreover, as with most, if not all, short story collections with multiple authors, every reader is going to have their own specific tastes. A story I couldn’t put down might be less compelling to another. And short stories in themselves have their own unique kind of structure different from long-form fiction. Which, again, lends itself to readers having various preferences in what they want or enjoy. While I can’t say for certain which stories you might love most, I can pretty much definitively say that you will find something to love.

Personally, I like short stories that have a bit of a haunting quality to them, ones that leave me wanting more but still satisfied with what I got. I prefer having a sense of projected direction for where the story/characters could go but without complete resolution. Of the fifteen, four left me breathless, wanting more, and eagerly looking up other works by their authors.

Ginn Hale’s “Treasured Island,” the first story in the collection, captured my imagination with its worldbuilding, dreamy tone, and lyrical prose. The living island she maroons her protagonist on is lush and vivid. The protagonist himself is meditative, deep, and alluring in his narration.

“The memories were like a treasure of beautiful glass that cut too deeply.”—Ginn Hale, “Treasured Island”

Ed Grabianowski’s fantasy horror “The Doomed Amulet of Erum Vahl” borders on the Lovecraftian with its haunted black temple surrounded by a barren wasteland and nightly battles with a shadowy demon. Yet he brings a sense of courage and bittersweet hope Lovecraft lacks that nonetheless doesn’t detract from the terror. Plus, I adore snarky queer pirate ladies, so Jagga had me from the get go.

On the other end of the “women characters I cannot resist” is Andromache of Elliot Dunstan’s “Andromache’s War.” In the aftermath of the Trojan War, Andromache resists becoming a prize of war and instead carves out her own place in a patriarchal culture and narrative. Using the system against itself, she nevertheless avoids becoming that which had dominated her. It’s a tale of grief, resistance, revenge, and breaking the cycle. Plus, Greek mythology. I would die for Andromache.

Last in this list and in the collection, but certainly not least in my estimation is A. J. Fitzwater’s “The Search for the Heart of the Ocean.” I have never read any of A. J.’s other works, but damn if I need to get my hands on the rest of their ‘dapper lesbian capybara pirate sage.’ I’m not kidding, the protagonist is literally a capybara (this is the story with the chinchilla Steven Universe). With breathtaking worldbuilding, a healthy dose of internet meme references, and stunningly rich lore, these are the queer rodent pirates I didn’t know I needed.

“Falling forever, into a silence so profound it could write its own epic.”—A. J. Fitzwater, “The Search for the Heart of the Ocean”

While not my top-tier standouts, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of my second favorites: Joyce Chng’s “Saints and Bodhisattvas,” Geonn Cannon’s “Rib of Man,” Su Haddrell’s “A Smuggler’s Pact,” Matisse Mozier’s “Rosa, the Dimension Pirate,” and Megan Arkenberg’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” All of these fall broadly into the category of, “enjoyable adventure stories from authors I’d read more of.” But again, you might think differently, so you’ll have to read them all to find out.

Potential Drawbacks

My first note isn’t so much a drawback as a clarification to set proper expectations. Scourge features a ton of queer female characters, which is a welcome addition to a straight, male dominated genre like pirate stories. As a queer woman myself, I love me some queer lady pirates. The first episode of my queer history podcast was about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, after all, and Max and Anne from Black Sails are in my top five list of queer lady ships. I am here for all the queer pirate ladies, full stop.

At the same time, based on what I read, and quoted, in the introduction, I expected more trans pirates, gay pirates, and (explicitly) bi pirates of all genders. (None of the queer female characters are explicitly bi and most were likely written to be viewed as lesbian.) I assumed that, “there are stories with these characters” meant, “there is a roughly equal (or at least a more even distribution) of stories with these characters.” My assumption isn’t the fault of the collection or the editor, though. However, I did want to make readers aware that Scourge skews strongly wlw. because the last thing I want is people disappointed in the book for making that same assumption.

As implied above, there’s some unevenness to the collection, but that’s to be expected when you have multiple authors. Not all of the stories have the same level of skill or precision with pacing, characterization, or worldbuilding. Nevertheless, even the ones I thought ‘weaker’ contained an element I liked and appreciated. For example, one story had great worldbuilding and setting, but the pacing of the denouement felt rushed. Another had an compelling thematic arc and interesting characters, but confusing worldbuilding that wasn’t fully explained until halfway through the narrative. At which point, I had to go back and reread the first half to make sense of it.

Certain stories in Scourge contain dark or difficult content, which may or may not be a drawback but is worth pointing out. One tale uses homophobia as a framing device, which bothered me both for its lack of historical accuracy to the culture and because stories with homophobia as worldbuilding are not to my taste. However, this particular story features a bisexual, poly dynamic, which was truly refreshing, and many will likely find the inclusion of homophobia to be compelling and validating to their experiences. Another tale includes implied pedophilia, domestic violence, and fridging, yet it also includes one of the most poignant journeys of a heart in conflict in the whole collection. For some, the content itself might be enough of a turn off, but for others, the compelling character work just might make this one of your favorites.

Final Score: 8/10

Scourge is treasure trove  of diverse stories in multiple ways: diversity of characters with regard to race, orientation, and gender identity; diversity of setting and cultural background; and diversity of style, tone, and themes. Most fall into the bracket of delighted enjoyment that I was glad I read. A handful rose above that to become favorites whose authors I will be looking up and left me wanting whole books about. Nothing is actively bad or poorly written, and your tastes will likely vary from mine so you might even adore some of the ones I found less engaging. All that to say, if you like pirates and have been wanting more than the standard white, male, straight, and Euro-centric tales that dominate the genre, I recommend giving up some doubloons in exchange for Scourge. It’s a prize worth having.

Scourge of the Seas of Time (And Space) is available today from Queen of Swords Press and can be purchased on their website. Don’t forget to check out other titles from Queen of Swords press to read over the holidays while avoiding unwanted conversations with family.

Editor’s Note: the author of this review received an advanced reader copy of this collection in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Images Courtesy of Queen of Swords Press

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