Superheroes are made, not born. Kind of a cheesy sentiment, but one that’s nonetheless true. Having superpowers doesn’t automatically make someone a hero, their choices do. Yet not all heroes can punch through walls or fly. Sometimes a superhero team is a disabled teenage bioengineer with treasonous tech, a frail girl whose body is at odds with her ambitions, a bright-eyed hopeful with a father unjustly imprisoned, a near-invincible teenager with villainous birth parents, and their self-aware, synthetic intelligence nibbling named Martin. If you’re a fan of found family, complicated family dynamics, and internal conflict, you won’t want to miss Lee Blauersouth’s Secondhand Origin Stories.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Opal has been planning to go to Chicago and join the Midwest’s superhero team, the Sentinels, since she was a little kid. That dream took on a more urgent tone when her superpowered dad was unjustly arrested for protecting a neighbor from an abusive situation. Now, she wants to be a superhero not only to protect people, but to get a platform to tell the world about the injustices of the Altered Persons Bureau, the government agency for everything relating to superpowers.
But just after Opal’s high school graduation, a supervillain with a jet and unclear motives attacks the downtown home of the Sentinels, and when Opal arrives, she finds a family on the brink of breaking apart. She meets a boy who’s been developing secret (and illegal) brain-altering nanites right under the Sentinel’s noses, another teenage superhero-hopeful who looks suspiciously like a long-dead supervillain, and the completely un-superpowered daughter of the Sentinels’ leader. Can four teens on the fringes of the superhero world handle the corruption, danger, and family secrets they’ve unearthed?
The Good Stuff
Blauersouth’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to blend found family with complicated family dynamics, two of my favorite themes to explore. So many superhero stories focus on either team dynamics or struggles with family of origin, we rarely get both. Especially both in the context of a second generation. These are the children of heroes struggling with legacy, perception, living up to expectations, and figuring out what they want vis-à-vis, not the out and proud superheroes themselves. It’s a new take on superhero stories, and one I’m already a fan of.
Why? Because it puts a new twist on old themes. Superheroes are very much a media darling right now, and, quite frankly, I’m a bit exhausted. There are only so many ways to tell a first generation superhero origin story. Blauersouth’s story takes the concepts of legacy, expectations, and heroic desire to a new place by contextualizing them in the realm of the superheroes’—and supervillains—children. What is it like to grow up in the shadow of a literal human paragon? Or, what if your parents were villains instead of heroes? How do you understand yourself and your powers when they’re visible reminders to the world at large of people who did horrible things?
Secondhand Origin Stories explores generational pain and trauma both through the psychological and the physical. Each of the younger generation must ask themselves who they want to be in the context of what they, and their parents, have suffered. You can’t always help what’s done to you or where you come from. But, you can make a choice about what you’ll do with the pain that can come from it.
Coping with pain and disability is another running theme in Secondhand Origin Stories. From internal conflict to injury and disability to superpowers that quite literally mark someone as being a child of villains, the book explores just how much damage being superpowered, or being related to someone who is, takes a toll. Rarely ever do we superhero stories tackling this issue. All too often, injury and disability get tucked away in superpowered worlds.
But just because Superman is super strong doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pain. Decades of broken bones, damaged nerves, and scarring will take their toll. And what about the non-supers in this world? What is it like to be ‘normal’ or even ‘sickly’ when you’re surrounded by physically fit, beautiful, and strong people who fight off villains every day? That’s a lot of pressure and expectation, especially if the supers are your parents. Secondhand Origin Stories is an exploration of chronic pain and disability against a superpowered background; it’s a welcome, and much needed story to tell.
All these themes feed into the question posed on the cover: who gets to be a hero? What does being a hero mean and who controls access to being perceived of a being heroic? This question plays itself in different yet complimentary ways through each of the four primary characters.
Like Lena Luthor, Yael’s parentage would make society question xyr motivations and whether or not xe would eventually turn evil. Isaac has the intelligence and drive to help people, but bureaucratic bullshit, and his own stubbornness, would seem to put him on the path to being a supervillain because people fear his technology more than they listen to his motives. Each has to ask themselves whether perception matters more than their self-understanding. They each also must consider whether they will impose limits on themselves since they’re either too strong or too intelligent to exist within the rules that already exist.
Opal is not just Black but dark skinned Black, and lacks both sufficient education and public pose to put her above public scrutiny. Drew flat out tells her she’s too Black, poor, and working class for people to accept her as a hero. We’re vividly reminded of how Black folks are perceived of as dangerous when she first arrives in Chicago and fears being shot just for being a large Black person with a hoodie (albeit a pink flowery one) in a position that could be considered that of an aggressor. Her father has also been imprisoned unjustly by a system that would not accept him as a hero and then punished him for helping others by using his powers.
Through her, we see just how unjust even the hierarchy of superheroism can be. Which functions well as a mirror into whose stories get told in superhero media. With the rise of Black Panther and comic book lines featuring heroes like America Chavez, Kamala Khan, and Shuri, things seem to be changing for the better. We’re getting more and more superheroes of color fronted in their own stories. Yet the industry is still overwhelmingly white. When you look at store shelves the answer to “who gets to be a hero” seems overwhelmingly to be cishet, white, conventionally attractive, able-bodied men (though yes, there are more and more female heroes these days, too). And that’s to say nothing of the real-life injustices in the prison system that Opal’s story reflects.
More than the other three, Jaime’s story explores what it feels like to be not only not super, but not even physically fit. She has bad asthma, scoliosis, low bone-density, a propensity for vomiting, and a whole host of other mild bodily ‘disfunctions.’ Things most of us would consider, you know, being a normal human being. But she’s the child of supers and treated as if she’s too frail to take care of herself, much less help others. She’s a wonderful way to explore that being strong in the real way is just as important as being physically strong.
It’s a complicated, interesting cast of characters. They’re all queer, too, which is another thing we’re missing a lot of in superhero stories. Martin was honestly my favorite character, even if they were more of a background presence for most of it. I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for synthetic intelligences becoming self-aware. And I love that they got a chance to speak about their preferred pronouns and have a space in the little family of trying-to-be-heroes. Queer found family superhero stories are one in a million, and this is one of those ones.
Secondhand Origin Stories can be a bit slow. I honestly hesitated even calling this a drawback. The superhero genre tends to be faster paced and action oriented. With the focus being so much on internal conflict, Secondhand Origin Stories lacks the action-fronted pace many of us our used to with this topic. That need not be a drawback for the most part. As a more meditative exploration of internal character journeys than a punch up badguys all the time story, it’s excellent.
At the same time, the pacing of the second act did flag a bit, even for a more internal story. The first act introduced the attack on the Sentinals tower—where the Superhero team lives. The second act barely moves this aspect of the plot forward at all, only to have it pick up again at the beginning of the third act to race toward the final confrontation and denouement.
Fortunately, I found the characters interesting enough that even when this part of the plot disappeared, they still engaged me. If you’re the kind of person for whom interesting characters can make up for a slow plot, you’ll enjoy this.
There are a few moments where literary references to other works (like Jane Eyre) and societal parallels can be a bit heavy handed, but they’re not overly distracting. And it might just be me. Twilight has rather soured me for instances of a character thinking, “This is just like that book I read in English class,” so I might be overly prone to rolling my eyes.
I wish we’d gotten more from Jenna, the mysteriously absent Aunt. She sounds like a fascinating character with a truly complex psychology, so I really hope we get to see a lot from her in the sequel. The only other question I have at the end of the book is whether or not Yael ever found xyr hamster Skittles in Martin’s central hub. Please say, xe did, Blauersouth!
As for content warnings, there are a few instances of misgendering and both external and internalized ableism. I think the author handles the issues really sensitively. Whether from good research or personal experience (I happen to know it’s both), the result is the same: it’s one of the best handling of these issues I’ve seen. Especially with regard to ablism. Even if you are sensitive to these issues, I highly encourage you to read through to see how well Blauersouth handles them. The book is also a great primer for how to be a good ally and learn from your mistakes in these situations, so on that score, I recommend anyone read it.
Final Score: 8/10
A gem among superhero stories that focuses on the margins and disability in a superpowered world. While a bit more meditative than your normal superhero stories, it absolutely delivers on character development and themes. The pacing of the second act may flag, but the finale is worth it. I got teary eyed when certain conversations started, and by the time I reached the last page, I was full-blown weeping. In a good way. I can’t wait for the sequel!
Images courtesy of Lee Blauersouth
Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight
It had to happen sometime. I talked last book about how much Butcher had improved on his shaky start. Published in 2002, Summer Knight brings the shaky opening to a conclusion. It also opens up a new phase of storytelling for the series as a whole. In case you couldn’t tell, I really like this book. It brings so much to the series, and features one of the more iconic moments of the series for Murphy. Let’s get into it.
Spoilers for Summer Knight and all previous books in the series.
So, What Happened?
Summer Knight opens with Harry and Billy investigating a rain of toads. Harry grumps around and alienates all his friends because of his grief over Susan. Afterwards, he goes to a meeting Billy orchestrated, which turns out to be with Mab, Queen of the Winter Fae. She bought his debt from the Leanansidhe, and wants him to clear her name for a murder. Harry refuses and goes to the White Council meeting. We meet several other wizards, and a vampire offers peace between the White Council and Red Court if they turn over Harry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the wizards agree not to sacrifice Harry if he makes Mab cooperate with the Wizards.
Harry discovers that the murdered man, Ronald Reuel, was the Summer Knight, the human intermediary for the Summer Court. The power he wielded disappeared, destroying the balance. Which, eventually, leads to war between the Courts. Elaine, shows up as the Summer Emissary. Harry attends Reuels funeral, and runs into several teenage, changeling acquaintances of the knight who are concerned over the disappearance of Lily. He visits the Winter Lady, then contacts Murphy. They fight several monsters in a Wal-Mart. He goes to the Summer Lady after finding Elaine beaten by his car.
Harry visits the Summer and Winter Mothers in the Nevernever. The Winter Mother gives him an Unraveling. Aurora, the Summer Lady steals it from him and reveals she orchestrated everything to remake the seasons in her own image. She trapped the power inside Lily. Harry objects to this. Harry, the Alphas, and two of the teenage changelings go to the Stone Table. They interrupt the fight between seasons, steal back the Unraveling, and kill Aurora, saving Lily, the one holding the mantle. In the conclusion, Lily becomes the new Summer Lady.
Best Moment – The Wal-Mart Fight, Organization to Conclusion
There are so many good things about this scene. There’s finally communication, Murphy’s first moment of awesome, and plot hooks perfectly combined with character catharsis. Over the course of this unlikely placed scene, Butcher manages to bring several elements of the early series to a conclusion.
The first, of course, is that Harry finally tells Murphy everything about the supernatural. She even gets in one last one-liner about being kept out, a start to their banter for the rest of the series. “‘I know I’ve kept things from you.’ … ‘Yeah’, she said, ‘I know. It’s annoying as hell.’”(299). He tells her everything. About the Red Court, the White Council, the Fae, and Chicago Supernatural Politics. Now, we won’t have the cheap conflict from Storm Front where they work at cross-purposes again.
Immediately afterwards, we have the fight with the chlorofiend, the Tigress, and the mind fog. At the conclusion of that fight, we also have Murphy’s first major impact since the Loup-Garou. “Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, … then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend’s glowing green eyes.” (345). Chainsaw with cold iron, vs Fae Creature. Murphy wins.
The way that the plot interacts shows improvement from the previous book. There, Butcher attempted to tie together the antagonists with the chain spells. Here, we see the ghoul, the summoned monster, and the mind fog from two different people. The Tigress also capitalizes on Murphy’s trauma from the previous book. But everything makes sense, and the conclusion of the fight ties together various plot threads, since Ace sent the Tigress, Aurora the fog and fiend, and Murphy starts to recover from Kravos’s attack.
Most Improved – Harry’s Attitude
While some of the previous books focused more on the change to other people, here we have Harry change. He has a character arc that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end. Harry starts the book depressed over Susan, and he alienates everyone. Billy points it out. “I don’t need to be a wizard to see when someone’s in a downward spiral. You’re hurting. You need help.” (25). Given that Billy previously espoused the theme of the series, his reintroduction here is significant. Eventually, Harry accepts the help Billy offers, both in scheduling meetings, and with the fight at the end. After the fight, Harry even goes over to hang out with the Alphas, and plays a barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game. He quotes William Shakespeare jokingly, and says, “Meep, Meep” to a deranged Faerie Queen. (489).
It is not only the Alphas that help change Harry’s mood. His reunion with Eileen, his teenage flame, who he thought he killed alongside Justin also helps. Finding out he didn’t kill her brings him closure. But through the book, when she nominally serves as an opponent, the Summer Emissary to his Winter, her presence reassures him. Even when she ‘betrays’ him to Aurora, and binds him, she still helps him. “I’d been right. It was the same binding she’d used when we were kids.” (433). Her meddling enables him to escape Aurora’s death trap, by using their childhood bond.
At the conclusion of the book, she gives him advice regarding Susan that builds to the catharsis detailed above. “Stop thinking about how bad you feel—because if she cares about you at all, it would tear her up to see you like I saw you a few days ago.” (510). That help sends him in a new direction.
Best Worldbuilding – The Fae Courts
While the information on the White Council is delightful, the Fae Court proves more valuable to the main plot. And we learn a lot about the Courts here. Lea makes an appearance, where she ‘helps’ Harry by distracting him and a Fae from fighting and guiding him to the Stone Table. She mentions again how she believes her actions last book only helped him as well. It gives insight to the alien nature of Fae morals.
We also can draw conclusions about the structure of the Courts given all the information on how they organize themselves. Through the book, we learn about the Winter and Summer Courts, each with three Queens. The Mothers, the retired queens. The Queens, the current ruler. And the Ladies, the heir for the future. Their Knights that do their will in the mortal world, and the Emissaries chosen on special occasions.
Also informative is the phrase, “If Winter came here, Summer had to come too, didn’t it?” (219). It implies certain checks and balances on each other’s behavior. That only highlights how serious a problem it is that the Summer Knight is dead, and the mantle gone. Lea’s information about the Stone Table reinforces that. Beyond being a reference to Narnia, it also guarantees great power to whoever holds the table, and whoever sheds blood on it. So, the peaceful transfer of the table from Summer to Winter and back with the seasons preserves their equality. Aurora’s plan only serves to show how important it is to keep that balance, less there be another Ice Age, or worse.
In showing us all this, Butcher expands his universe so much further, and sets the ‘table’ for future stories. Ones that will lead to the eventual conclusion of the series, yet to come.
Worst Worldbuilding – The Conclusion of Meryl’s Story
Given all that we know now about the Fae, it comes as no surprise that the worst worldbuilding also comes from that section of the story. Butcher’s take on Changelings is innovative, being half-human, half-Fae rather than the traditional version. The problems arise from how the narrative treats her, and the results of her half-Fae heritage.
The problem with Meryl is that Meryl dies at the end of the story. She is the first person explicitly allied with Harry to die. The only previous person that was not an antagonist that died was MacFinn, and he attempted to murder them all because of an uncontrollable curse. Meryl dying in and of itself is not the entire problem. Butcher directs the series in a darker direction, so deaths will come eventually. The issue that I have with the conclusion of Meryl’s story is that Butcher could have done so many things with her. As a Changeling aligned with Winter, dearest friend of the new Summer Lady and Knight, the possibility of an inter-Fae alliance or Court would develop.
She even said, “[Winter] Calls,’ Meryl said. ‘ But I’m not answering.’” (459). The Changelings provide a glimpse of the Fae outside of the manipulation, outside of Court politics. Meryl could have been symbolic of that. But no. Meryl Chooses to save Lily. She Chooses and she dies and all that hope with her. It’s a story brought too soon to a conclusion, one that broke off threads that could have continued.
Moment of Regression – Ye Old Wandering Eyes
I will admit, this is a sticking point for me. I talked about my dislike of Harry’s voyeurism in Storm Front. I brought it up again in Fool Moon. Thankfully, it didn’t appear too often in the following books, but here we see this again with a vengeance. And it doesn’t even make sense in character this time.
After a Susan-vampire nightmare, Harry thinks.
“But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely—except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back up to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.” (176).
So, theoretically at least Harry’s libido takes a break. I understand that part of this nightmare and Harry’s symptoms comes from the dangerous way he’s punishing himself for Susan’s condition. But, still. Even before this dream we have moments where he stares at Mab’s ass. He knows she’s the Winter Queen, and he still ogles her when she leaves. At Maeve’s court, Butcher spends a good deal of time describing Jenny Greenteeth, a Fae seductress. He could have emphasized the alien way she moves, the details that make her decidedly not human, and dropped a one-liner about her being naked at the end. It would have been in character for Harry’s blasé kind of humor. Instead, Butcher flips that script, focusing on the nakedness, with the inhumanity coming as an aside.
Call it my own personal soapbox, if you will, but that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when the last book did so much better with Harry’s gaze. (Not perfect, of course, but better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to keep improving.)
Overall, Summer Knight showcases the best of Butcher’s work so far. While the choices were somewhat limited compared to last book, the plot hangs together much better. That cohesive plot lent its voice to each category, and the worst moments were nitpicks and could-have-beens.
The way that Butcher brought this story arc, and Harry’s character arc to a conclusion proved satisfying. His mastery of plot improved, with the motivations of the antagonists and the number being reasonable, instead of overwhelming. The knowledge about the Fae, about the Council, and about Elaine all help set up this next phase of the series. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Am I being too nit-picky in the ‘bad’ categories, or is it just proof of concept that the problems can be reduced to nitpicks? Was the White Council more fascinating than the Fae, or was Harry’s arc disjointed? Let me know if I’m being too harsh on the series, if you had a different idea for a category, or if you have any comments about the arc of the series as a whole. I look forward to hearing from you.
Creator Corner: Interview with YA Author Linsey Miller
Every now and again an opportunity falls into your lap to have a conversation with someone you never dreamed you’d get to. When Dan asked me if I might want to interview Linsey Miller, author of Mask of Shadows and its sequel Ruin of Stars, I fangirl screamed politely accepted the invitation to make contact. As a fan of queer YA, masked assassins, and page-turning action, I couldn’t pass up the possibility of talking with her. She said yes, and here we are.
So come join me as Linsey talks writing, representation, and what’s coming up next for her.
Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning, what got you into writing? Are you one of those life-long storytellers or did something specific inspire you to want to become a published author? Or both?
Linsey Miller: I wrote a lot as a child. I was lucky—my parents liked reading and we had a library that wasn’t too far away. However, I didn’t really grow up thinking it was a thing that a person could do (even though my kid brain knew people did write books, the idea that I could didn’t really click). Years later, I ended up completely blowing my medical school applications and one of the interviewers said, “Sounds like you want to write books.” I started researching, reading, and writing more after that.
So thank you doctor who saw through my terrible application.
G: What makes books a compelling format for telling stories for YA audiences? Is there something you think books can do that say, a visual medium like film or television can’t?
LM: I think a lot of what makes them compelling will vary greatly from reader to reader (and they might never be as compelling as a film to some), but I know for me it was how immersive they were. With books, you have to directly interact with the prose in a way you can’t sometimes with visual mediums—the cadence and pacing of the reading, while it can be set by the narrative, is partly dependent on the reader. It’s easier to put yourself into the narrative and see yourself as a part of the story and world when you’re reading. I don’t think there’s something books can do that visual mediums can’t so much as that the interaction between reader and book is different than viewer and medium.
G: Speaking of your writing, what inspired you to write Mask of Shadows? What was it about the story itself or the characters that really drew you?
LM: There were a lot of small things. I like assassins, and I wanted to explore how difficult moral choices affect people, especially as a kid when you’re realizing that morality is not as solidly set as you thought. But at the same time, I really want to write a fantasy novel that let people be the rogue with a heart of gold and grapple with how difficult some parts of life are without sacrificing one for the other.
And then, there was this driving urge to explore a fantasy world that felt like it was a few years past when a book would normally be set so that I could see how the grown up heroes of a plot might cope with what happened and how that affects the young adults around them. Growing up after something huge happened and with the people who were directly involved was something I wanted to write about.
Also, I love Sal. Writing their story was a dream come true.
G: Your primary protagonist in the duology, Sal, is genderfluid; what led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to have gender non-conforming characters in media for young adults?
LM: Before writing the book, there was a lot of talking about how Sal approached gender, navigated the world, and how the plot would and wouldn’t approach gender. I wouldn’t say anything led me in that direction specifically.
However, especially now that I know more, I think it’s important to have non-binary and gender non-conforming characters in media for young adults who are written by non-binary and gender non-conforming authors. People need to see themselves in media—especially young adults who are still figuring themselves and the world out—and they deserve to see themselves represented in all the nuanced ways that exists by people who know what it’s like.
So I go back and forth now on if it was my place to have written Sal, but I don’t want that to detract from how vitally important it is that kids see themselves in literature AND in the population creating that literature.
G: You also include a queer romance in the story and have multiple characters of color; why was it important to you to include so many layers of diverse representation?
LM: It was really important to me that the world was actually a world. I decided early on that if I wrote young adult that I had to take how and what I wrote very seriously, so the goal was to make sure that the world didn’t erase people or leave room to default characters to what is generally expected. I didn’t want the main characters to be token people. That felt unfair to them and to readers.
G: Tell me more about your characters: What is your favorite thing (or things) about Sal? Is there anything that makes them especially challenging and/or exciting to write?
LM: I love that Sal knows who they are. They’re confident and a little bit on the arrogant side, and they start Mask of Shadows knowing what they want. They do change over the course of the book, but I liked writing a character who knew themselves and didn’t feel guilty about it. Sal was just Sal. They enjoyed being Sal! That was exciting to write.
G: If you could write a book or short story highlighting one of your secondary characters, which one or ones would you choose and why?
LM: Ruby or Maud. Writing something for Ruby would give the added benefit of including a bunch of other characters, and I would love to explore the siege of the school ten years prior to Mask of Shadows. Nearly every character in the book would have been involved, and many would have been Sal’s age when it occurred.
As for Maud, she’s simply the best.
G: If you could give one piece of advice to other aspiring writers who want to write original fiction that you don’t think others are saying, what would it be?
LM: The advice to “write” is out there, but what happens emotionally during isn’t always talked about. Writing is a largely internal process—you spend a lot of time alone thinking about things that you can’t talk about. That loneliness can be draining, so make sure you take care of yourself if you can. Find out what helps you, find your people, and take care. A book is all well and good, but you’re important too.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
LM: Yes! I have two new fantasy books coming out in 2020 and 2021. By Grace & Blood is a standalone young adult fantasy about two young women who must work together to stop a war waged by the powerful and greedy in a French-inspired fantasy world. I should have more information about it soon.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
LM: Save your work in multiples places as you go.
Don’t be me.
Whether you write by processor or by hand, make sure your work is copied and safe in at least 2 or 3 places.
G: That’s excellent advice. Thanks for chatting with me!
LM: You’re welcome!
About Linsey Miller
Originally from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University and represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary. Her debut novel Mask of Shadows was the first in a young adult fantasy duology, which was completed with Ruin of Stars this year. Her next novel, a standalone French-inspired fantasy titled By Grace and Blood, will come out in 2020 with another standalone fantasy to follow in 2021. She can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.
Images Courtesy of Linsey Miller and Sourcebooks Fire
Scourge of the Seas A Treasury of Seafaring Adventure and Diversity
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.
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.