Tough Travelling: Nautical Fantasy
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re looking at our favourite NAUTICAL fantasy, and any PIRATES that may crop up. Here’s what DWJ had to say on the matter…
Pirates range the seas in force, though most of them operate individually. When not BARBARY VIKINGS, Pirates are drawn from all populations. The sole qualifications are that they must be rough and ruthless, with a penchant for dressing gaudily. This usually includes pierced ears. The Rule is that Pirates always have the fastest SHIPS, except for Barbary Vikings; so, if the Tour takes you to sea and the lookout reports a Pirate in the offing, expect to be overhauled, grappled, and boarded. Nervous Tourists will be pleased to know that this is a mere INCIDENT, however. Pirates are always beaten off after a bloody swordfight, unless you have not yet been enslaved. Then you will be captured and sold.
A big thank you to Nils, Theo, Dorian, Jonathan, Scarlett, Julia, Asha, and Beth for their recommendations…
The first nautical book which springs to mind is The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton. Although technically a historical fiction it does have some supernatural vibes throughout and even a touch of folklore, so I’m cheating and including it anyway! I’m not going to say anything about the plot or characters because it’s honestly better to dive in (haha, see what I did there!!) knowing nothing at all, but prepare to set sail on a journey across the high seas; it is a journey where you’ll question every action and speculate every motive, a journey where nothing is as it seems!
For my next two choices I’m thinking outside of the box here, as although I’d class these both as nautical fantasies, the ships in these worlds do not sail on water.
The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson is set in the world of Arcadia where there is an endless sea of grass, where monsters lurk beneath the surface and murderous pirates relentlessly hunt after you. Ships sail upon this sea of grass and are fuelled by hearthfires and the bones of captains long dead. We follow our main character Kindred as she learns the ways of being a hearthfire keeper, the one who wields the bones within the hearthfire, which in turn controls the ship. As you can see this one has such an innovative world!
Lastly I’ve chosen Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft. It’s been a good year or two since I’ve read this sequel to Senlin Ascends, but I do remember that for a good portion of the book we follow Senlin, Edith, Iren and Voleta onboard their stolen airship as they dabble in piracy and travel to new ringdoms on the ever search for Senlin’s missing wife. I’m so head over heels in love with Bancroft’s exquisite worldbuilding and prose.
The Corsairs of Umbar – not particularly jolly as pirates go, but how could it be a Tough Travelling post without a Tolkien reference? This base of renegade Numenoreans proved a thorn in the side of Gondor and were allies of Sauron. They shipped Haradrim reinforcements to the siege of Minas Tirith and blockaded in any prospect of relief from Prince Imrahil of dol Amroth. But that was only until Aragorn and the Army of the Dead swept them aside in payment of an age old debt.
I think there might be some piratical action in Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King where the prince with half a hand, Yarvi is sold into slavery as a galley oarsmen. But I’ll need to check how much yo ho ho-ing and rum is involved. It seems to be more trading than piracy, though being a galley slave and getting shipwrecked are the bread and butter of any good pirating story!
Any discussion of modern nautical standouts in fantasy has to include Lucky Meas, the shipwife of the Tide Child from RJ Barker’s Bone Ships trilogy. Meas is at once ruthless and compassionate, brave and loyal, a quick thinker and sound of judgment. She is exactly who you want in command when your vessel faces storms, pirates, or island-sized aquatic dinosaurs. Check out this amazing illustration of her by Jenni Coutts.
My favourite nautical fantasy with pirates is Tim Powers’ masterful On Stranger Tides, a glorious nautical yarn involving Blackbeard, body-hopping ghosts, sentient forests, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. Hollywood bought the title and various plot elements for the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean film, which otherwise has nothing to do with Powers’ delightful adventure story.
I must also give a shout out to China Mieville’s The Scar, the second in the Bas Lag trilogy, which takes place almost entirely on Armada, a floating city made of thousands of ships, and involves pirates and sea monsters but in Mieville’s characteristically bizarre New Weird way.
I chose Our Bloody Pearl by D.N. Bryn, an SPFBO entry in 2019 as my nautical and piratey adventure for Tough Travelling. Talk about an engrossing plot featuring Sirens haunted by ruthless pirates and a main, diverse character POV with a disability and the feistiest attributes. What I loved about this novel was the incredibly imagined setting and the vulnerable relationship of humans and mythical creatures in tandem who risk everything to fight the ultimate pirate of the seas, Kian. With incredibly harrowing scenes and jaw-dropping moments, this book was a hugely captivating read from page one!
My choice for “nautical” is a bit different, as it’s mermaid horror.
I loved Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant! It is a brilliant mix of science, fantasy and horror. We start with a few characters who are setting out on a cruise to proof that mermaids exist. This will be the second expedition, the first one ended up with an empty ship adrift at sea, and all the crew lost. The first half of the book is mostly about the characters and a lot of different scientific backgrounds. A slow and well researched build up to the story, until we get to the mariana trench, when we reach the deep blue sea, and horror begins…
Some of my favourites have already been mentioned, but I want to throw in Zamira Drakasha from Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch – an incredibly badass pirate queen who’s also a caring mother to two small children. She’s super cool and a really nice addition to the otherwise fairly male-heavy cast.
I also really enjoy morally-dubious pirate Kennit from the Liveship trilogy by Robin Hobb. He’s not a good man, at all, but he’s a hugely compelling character to follow – a wonderful example of when a villain’s POV really works in a book.
And I’d be totally remiss not to mention the Isles of Storm and Sorrow trilogy by Bex Hogan. The series is stunning dark piratical YA, and although I haven’t yet finished the final book, Vulture, I adore Marianne, who’s the daughter of vicious pirate captain, the Viper. There’s so much brilliant nautical adventure in this series, and wonderful pirate characters – it’s a must-read even for those who don’t usually dip into YA.
Wow, so many excellent recommendations! I do recall Yarvi ending up on a ship in Abercrombie’s Half a King trilogy – particularly the section where they transport the ship over land, that part really sticks in my mind.
Ok, as for my own suggestions…
I have to include the Pirate King Kolsen from D.P Woolliscroft’s Kingshold books. He has dedicated short stories in the collections Tales of Kingshold and Tales of Ioth, which fill in some of his backstory and his rise from galley slave to pirate king. He’s that special blend you expect from fantasy pirates of charming but ruthless. And ultimately, an opportunist.
Zamira is a brilliant shout from Asha, I loved that character! Another great pirate doing it for the girls is Keleut from T. L. Greylock and Bryce O’Connor’s Shadows of Ivory. Although starting off as a kidnapper, and maintaining a tough shell for the majority of the book, I loved how her story opened out.
Next month, we’ll be discussing our favourite examples of MAGIC JEWELLERY in fantasy.
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