Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Steel - Carrie Vaughn

Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought in dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade - a real sword. When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure. The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship. Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew. But a pirate's life if bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home - one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.

Review: I had complete misgivings even before I started reading this book, and my misgivings only proved to be correct - not in all instances, mind you, but in many of them. In the Afterward, the Author claims that she did a lot of research regarding historical piracy. I have to question how much research she thought "a lot" was, because hardly any of it made itself known in the story. To be fair, she also admitted that she ignored some of what she researched because clearly she wanted her pirates to be heroic and moral.

Um, well, there is her first mistake. Pirates were - and still are - criminals; no better than today's street gangs. There was no pirate code or pirate's honor (true, captains made rules according to their individual standards. There was no specific code, like the Articles of War, that all pirates followed), their voting system was anything but fair or civil (again, look at today's street gangs and how they replace leaders; it was no different then), and pirates were, in fact, known to be terrible seamen. While the Author does mention in her Afterward that pirates who captured slave ships would sell the slaves for profit, it just illustrates further her poor attempt to make heroes out of villains when her pirates free the slaves they capture. So what is it exactly that makes them pirates?

Ah, yes, and female captains . . . Now, I can understand why the Author made the "good" pirate captain - Margery Cooper - a female. If she hadn't, then it would have been a prime setup for bad, but accurate, things to happen to Jill among "rogue and tumble" men who certainly had no regard for a woman's virtue. And Captain Cooper could have been extremely unbearable as most female pirate characters are in stories, but I still protest at how unlikely it would be in real life for Cooper to become - and then maintain - her position as captain. There is a reason that history only knows of two famous female pirates (not counting the few in the Orient; Chinese piracy was an entirely different kettle of carnivorous eels); women were considered bad luck.

To top this off, there's the name of the "bad" pirate captain. I don't know what made the Author think that Blane was a threatening name. I kept picturing a Californian surfer Ken-doll whenever I read his name. He made Captain Shakespeare from Stardust seem threatening. But then it all made sense, when it was revealed that the whole premise of the story was, in fact, much like a Barbie-and-Ken relationship. I'm afraid that I am not joking. Blane was the only unforgettable character simply because of his unbelievable name. Jill was not too annoying (she whined a bit much), but many times I mistook her for an inanimate object, she was so lacking in personality, and for someone who had just been launched from the 21st century into the early 1700s among a bunch of murderous criminals, she takes to it all very well - indeed, she takes to it so well and thinks so little about her family, that it actually bothered me. I hate it when characters take forever to come to terms with their situation, but she is too okay with it. And the romance between her and Henry (who was also another inanimate object) was so gradual that it came as a shock to me when they started expressing feelings for one another.

But all of this I could have handled fairly well (perhaps, even Blane's name) if there hadn't been the terrible fact that the Author made the worst mistake that so many modern sea-faring writers make: she didn't research her sailing terms and the workings of a ship in general, and she never actually went to sea on a tallship. In the Afterward, she says that she consulted someone on these things. Either she completely disregarded his information or he knew just as little as she did - or a combination of both. I have an actual tallship sailor living in my house to confirm any flaws the Author made - i.e. my sister -, and goodness, were there many. First rule for all people who want to write a sea-faring story: research, research, research! You have to immerse yourself in it; read books that historical sailors actually used, history, technical books - indeed, you need to make yourself seasick on it. There is nothing more painful, more horrid, than authors who insist on writing sea-faring stories and don't do proper sailing research. If an author is not willing to do this, then either find a different genre, or write the story in first-person; from the perspective of a character who knows absolutely nothing - and learns absolutely nothing - about sailing.

Steel by Carrie Vaughn was torturous. I didn't think I would get through it, honestly (had it resembled Pirates of the Caribbean any more - and thankfully it really didn't that much, to give the Author some credit - I would not have). Pirates simply cannot be cast as moral, heroic people. They simply can't. If they're moral, they're not pirates.

Overall Rating: 


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