Seafire by Natalie C. Parker
Release date: August 2018
On the back of the sea, who do we trust?
When our ship falters, who do we trust?
In a storm of Bullets, who do we trust,
Caledonia Styx knows heartbreak. Her entire life, Cal has lived on the high seas in awe of her mother, the captain of the Ghost. So much so, that Cal begs her mother for the chance to run land campaigns—gathering much needed supplies ashore, always following the important rule of never being seen—and then starts running them. On a moonlit night as the Ghost docks just off-shore of a desert island, she is fourteen and running a campaign with her best friend, Pisces, when then they run into Bullets: the conscripted soldiers of the warlord pirate Alric Athair. Cal hesitates when one of the Bullets (a boy not much older than herself, named Lir) asks for mercy, and in that moment she damns her entire ship. The Ghost is torn apart by Bullets and Caledonia’s mother, father, and brother are murdered along with every other soul on board. All that is left of her family is Pisces. Together, the two girls vow revenge on the man behind the massacre. Cal especially vows never to break the rules again, to never hesitate in the face of the enemy, and buries her secret deep.
Years later, Cal and Pi are the captain and first mate of the Mors Navis; a fast, canny ship with a crew comprising young women who have all had their families taken from them and their lives torn apart by Athair. Cal’s ship and crew are her new family, and she will do anything to protect them. So, when Pi nearly is killed in a skirmish and is saved by a Bullet who claims he wants to defect, Cal’s only instinct is to throw him overboard as fish food. Pi, however, wants to trust him, and in so doing begins to pull at the rules that Cal has leaned on for so many years to protect the only family she has left. With a bounty on their heads and the Bullets on their tail, Cal must stretch the limits of her trust and control in order to keep her sisters safe.
The newest novel from Natalie C. Parker, Seafire promises a young adult feminist pirate adventure story on the high seas. What isn’t immediately clear from the description of the book is the fact that it is also a science fiction/speculative fiction novel—Caledonia’s ship relies on solar and battery powered technology, and there are little clues throughout the novel that speak to a post-apocalyptic future world. (Cool, and completely unexpected, right?) From a pure world building perspective, Parker paints an irresistible backdrop: Cal’s is a lawless world in which a pirate warlord rules through fear and violence. Keeping his men drugged (hooked on a substance called Taint, which he forces on his crew to keep them addicted and compliant) and demands tribute in the form of conscripted children as well as stores from every outpost, ship, and port on the seas. As far as Big Bads go, Athair is as wolfish as they come.
What’s so fascinating about this villain, however, is the fact that Aric Athair never actually makes an appearance in this book. But his fivesons (the generals who are in charge of executing his will), and Lir in particular, are plenty formidable on their own. Athair’s legacy and consolidation of power is highly effective and chillingly believable, despite the warlord’s absence from Caledonia’s story.
In the face of such a terrifying foe, Caledonia, Pisces, and the crew of the Mors Navis are a stubborn spot of optimistic resistance. In theory, I love the idea of Seafire and its ragtag crew of female pirates—Cal and Pi have been through hell, and come through stronger as leaders and sisters because of it. Together, they fight Athair by picking off his Bullet ships one by one, but run into the problem of becoming too successful and face an entire fleet of Athair’s men, not to mention every other Pirate and opportunist on the high seas when the bounty is put on the Mors Navis.
While the action is strong, and Cal and Pi shine best when they are under attack, where Seafire stumbles is in its execution of these characters. We are told, repeatedly, that Cal needs to follow the rules or people get killed, and that Pi pushes the limits of Cal’s orders because they need to be better than the Bullets, and that the crew of the Mors Navis are sisters and are brave and strong and Cal chokes up everytime they go into battle at how brave and strong they all are. In short, Parker’s writing is a tad formulaic and workaday, substituting blunt repetition of key feelings and phrases instead of actually inspiring/showing those emotions. Similarly, while the bond between all of the female crew members is believable, what isn’t is the fact that none of these female characters seem to have formed romantic bonds to one another, and instead Parker pushes a hard het-romance angle between Cal, Pi, and their defector Bullet captive. (What’s so hard to believe about this is that there seems to be more genuine chemistry between Cal and Pi than anyone else.) There are hints at what might be romantic attachments between other female characters aboard the ship, but they are never explicitly or implicitly stated, which is utterly frustrating and disappointing. Surely there would be romantic lesbian relationships on this ship! Parker’s cishet approach to the world is more than just a missed opportunity at diversity; it also reads as inauthentic, forced, and weirdly sanitized, and I sincerely hope will be rectified in book two.
Diverting, but, like some of the meals eaten by Cal and Pi on the sea, a little thin.
In Book Smugglerish, six glittering solar sails out of ten.