Piratica, by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee has written something like fifty books, this primarily for adults, but in the last ten years or so, she’s been writing quite a few for young adults. I first encountered her YA books with the early ones, which were titled Black Unicorn, Gold Unicorn, and Red Unicorn. A good deal of what she writes for adults is in the dark fantasy or borderline horror realm, and there were some odd things about those books (although they were very pretty). She is British, and not the daughter of Bernard Lee (“M”, from the first fifteen or so James Bond movies), although Wikipedia insists that’s a persistent rumor. (Not one I’ve heard.)

Miss Artemisia Faith (or Fitz-Willoughby Weatherhouse) is a student in a girls’ school in an alternate England, around the turn of the nineteenth century. She was not terribly miserable there, until one day when she hits her head and it jogs all her memories loose: memories of her mother, Molly Faith, called Piratica — the greatest female pirate of her day. Now, of course, she’s miserable in a place that makes her powder over the streak in her hair; that makes her walk around with a book on her head in a dress when she should be taking over her mother’s position (Molly passed away, which was how she got stuck in that school). She escapes pretty easily, and now her goal is to get the band (the pirate troupe) back together.

This book is terribly funny. Nothing is quite as it seems, from beginning to end. There are heartfelt moments, and even a few moments of real danger, but when it comes down to it, the book is borderline farcical. I loved that aspect of it; it seemed more like a fanciful tale (a tall tale?), and changed the tone to one where it didn’t matter that Art was borderline unrealistic, and Felix was intentionally an enigma. Actually, it wasn’t so much that those things didn’t matter; it turned them into a feature. The background cast of characters was as colorful as one would expect in a story with this much humor in it, and added to the tone. Even the ending was very amusing and yet satisfying, as both a comedy and an Epic Tale.

I loved Art. First, she insisted on being called ‘Art’ rather than ‘Artemisia’, which reveals that she is Spunky and Not At All Fussy; however, those are both great qualities in a pirate captain. Second, I mentioned above that she was borderline unrealistic: she really is. She has an incredible amount of skill with weapons, despite never having handled them (or at least not for six years between ten and sixteen). She already knows how to sail a boat, because she did when she was a kid. She has chestnut-brown hair, with a streak of marigold orange in it. Her only flaw, as far as I can tell, is stubbornness and a lack of patience. Of course, those are ‘flaws’ that are often regarded as virtues: perseverance and no tolerance for fools, in their kinder forms. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a Mary Sue — she’s not an avatar for the author, I feel certain — but she is a sort of legendary, epic Hero, rather than a human being.

Amusing pirate books aren’t exactly rare, but this one had such a lovely, satirical (yet warm-hearted) tone that it’s been my favorite of them so far. Sorry, Jacky Faber, but I’m generally not a big fan of first-person narratives, and the action in Piratica was just enough over-the-top that it was utterly delightful. I don’t think I’ve read that many dead-serious pirate books, either, but this one had a level of humor that really entertained me more than I was expecting, going into it. I can’t remember if I’ve ever read any other humor by Tanith Lee, but I’d be very interested in reading more. Fortunately, there’s two more in this series alone, although book III only seems to be available in the UK. (If someone wants to send it to me, I’d be thrilled.) 4/5 stars.

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