Aleja is a dreamer who longs for a life of magic and adventure. So when a mysterious ship arrives in her Spanish harbour city, crewed by a band of ruthless women, Aleja knows it’s sailed right out of a legend.
And it wants her.
But life aboard the Ship of Shadows is more than even she bargained for. It will take all of Aleja’s strength and skill to gain the trust of her fellow pirates – and discover what they are risking everything to find . . .
Many thanks to Richard Osman and Penguin Books for the chance to read this ARC, courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Pirates. Magic. Krakens. Seriously, what is not to love for any young reader wanting adventure. Throw in the all-girl kick-ass crew and this is a great, fun read.
Aleja is our protagonist, the youngest daughter in a family who run a tavern in Sevilla, Spain. Being working class and female there is the hint of oppression and patriarchy and bullying in the world that Kuzniar creates, but just a hint. Somewhat anachronistically and improbably, Aleja has a facility with language and a love of reading – would someone of her class and gender have been given enough education in what seems to be nineteenth century Spain to read in her own language let alone foreign languages? – and a hankering after adventure. Adventure that seems to be impossibly beyond her grasp, save for the tall tales of sailors she overhears in the tavern and the stories in the books she reads.
Until, one night, she spots a mysterious ship limping into harbour, blackened and smoking. The eponymous Ship of Shadows, sailing out of legend and drunken tales into her life. As luck would have it, she makes contact with the pirates, happens to have been clutching a mysterious and sought-after book at the same time and is invited on board. And thus she is swept out of her hum-drum life and into an adventure. It is sheer teenage escapist fare – did we all yearn for something similar?
Once on board, we are introduced to a range of piratical stereotypes: missing limbs and scars, tattoos, cutlasses and muskets, crows’ nests and rigging. And there are additions: the crew is all female (which was great), the parrot is replaced with an owl (a rather more fierce one than Hedwig!), the piracy is ethical (which did sort of diminish the piratical nature of the crew), the ship is haunted by a somewhat stroppy ghost, and the ship is magical.
The magic is wonderful: the ship is, in Captain Quint’s words
“crafted with the fabric of legends… When something is immortalized in stories, it gives the air of enchantment I find.” She peered closer at Aleja then, a nearby lantern flashing light on her face in odd patterns. “Every legend you hear about the Ship of Shadows is true. Its magic is fed by them…”
The power of story, legend, narrative manifesting itself in the magic of the ship – a somewhat chaotic magic which creates shadows, some of which are shadowy imprints of past crew members, some of which are somehow sentient, and new passageways and rooms, cabins, caverns and caves within the ship’s fabric. The limitations of space seem to be somewhat bypassed in a TARDIS-like way!
The characters are all warm and familiar enough, a touch two dimensional perhaps: Elizabeth Quint, the Captain has the air more of a stern but good hearted school head teacher than anything else, a descendent of the mysterious and mythic Thomas James whose ship this seems to be; the Quartermaster Malinka is fierce and intimidating; the nimble thief Frances who befriends Aleja; the engineer Farren, the chemist Velka and the cook Ermtgen… all of them kind and loyal behind varying degrees of coarseness. They did remind me a little of the crew of the Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – a family more than a crew perhaps – a replacement for the mother lost to Aleja. It is certainly (at the moment) seems to be a crew from which Quint does not need to fear mutiny!
Anyway, adventure awaits as the crew set sail, not to plunder merchant ships, but to seek out clues to a magical treasure map and hidden cities, and to evade a shadowy nemesis with the power to strip the ship of its shadows and magic.
The novel gallops apace with a great pace, with occasional pauses to explore the ship and battle krakens, but it did perhaps lack a little depth for me.
I’d have liked more of the social issues in Sevilla explored before we left it behind, more of Aleja’s family so that her being torn between the desire to stay aboard the ship and to return home was felt more keenly. There is a moment where a lesbian relationship is introduced and – whilst I like the idea of it being there but not being an issue – that felt very anachronistic to me. Surely Aleja brought up in a very traditional role would have reacted in some way!
And I’d have loved the magic of the ship to have contributed something to the narrative – the idea behind the magic was lovely but the story would not have been changed in any meaningful way without it. Amazon compares the book with The Girl of Ink and Stars which is perhaps unfortunate and highlights the ways in which this book, whilst good, is not as good as that one!
To conclude, a great fun read which I would hope would capture the attention and imagination of its target audience beautifully – and which has left itself very much open to sequels! What age range would I suggest it to? Maybe 8-11s. I’d have loved to have read it at that age!
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Date: 16th July 2020