Fully Booked Blog: Reina reviews Seafire

Shut your eyes and picture a ship with a crew consisting entirely of girls. I don’t mean a ship captained by a girl, or a ship whose officers are girls. I’m talking an entire crew, from the captain to the officers, the engineers and the sharpshooters, down to the cook and the person who drains the waste from the ship, consisting entirely of girls.

A whole ship, mastering the open sea, weathering storms, running repairs, fielding pirates, raiding warlords’ fleets — completely ran by girls.

Close your eyes and REALLY IMAGINE IT. For those who don’t get why this is important, I guarantee it will be disorienting. But for those who do, it will be dizzying with power.

Caledonia Styx and my Pirate King Elizabeth Swann would have lots to discuss.

Girls of all kinds

This seemingly mythical ship is the subject of Natalie C. Parker’s Seafire. Caledonia Styx’s parents were killed by tyrant Aric Athair and his Silt-addicted army of Bullets. As captain of the Mors Navis (literally Latin for “Death Ship”), Caledonia and the women of her crew are on a mission to make Aric’s reign as difficult as possible. And Caledonia has a personal vendetta to kill the Bullet responsible for the murder of her family.

Four years after her parents’ death, Caledonia and her faithful first mate Pisces have “[stitched together] a crew from the odds and ends of the world”. The fifty-three-woman crew of the Mors Navis is a tapestry of diversity. If your mind is still swimming with that image of a ship, picture further: Girls with dark skin and braids. Girls with black hair and slanted eyes; girls with reddish-brown skin who believed in nature spirits. A mute girl (everyone on board knows sign language!). A forty-year old woman. A stowaway of about fourteen. There seems to be a place for every kind of girl aboard Caledonia’s ship, and there seems to be a chance to be a heroine for every kind of girl in Seafire’s story.

Girls who get the job done

A blurb inside the front cover of the book likens Seafire to Mad Max: Fury Road in terms of pacing, and once you get into the swing of things, you’ll see why. High-octane chases and sea battles, negotiations and confrontations merge fluidly into each other like tributaries flowing into rivers flowing into oceans. This isn’t some fluffy pirate ship fantasy — Parker comes from a Navy family, so she knows her seafaring stuff. She narrates the action as intelligently as a professional sports commentator. That is, if any sports commentator ever spoke in Parker’s beautiful prose — there is a phrase or line of dialogue to love on nearly every page.

I’m a dog-earer! And Seafire called for. So. Many. Dog-ears.

Under duress is when the girls shine brightest. There’s Redtooth, a vicious fighter with her face smeared with bright red clay. The healer, Lovely Hime, whose gentleness mustn’t be mistaken for weakness.  There’s Tin Mary, who with her four sisters keep the deck running like clockwork. Lace, who organizes logistics with a mind as orderly as a computer (and whose sunny disposition stole my heart). And while I didn’t think much of the ship’s engineer, Amina, as I was reading; after I wrapped up the book and came face-to-face with home improvements I had to tackle on my own, I found myself thinking, I can manage this, because Amina can.

Here is the thing about a cast that’s principally female — by filling all the roles with women, you remove the competition that would have (subconsciously) been there if the roles had been up for grabs between both women and men. You don’t think that this female engineer is as skilled as that male one. There are no male engineers, so the woman’s skill shines on its own without being compared to a man’s standard. Seafire is the story of a woman’s world, not of women excelling in a man’s world.

Girls with heart

I dropped out of the Lady Sponsors in ROTC during college because I couldn’t stand the catty, competitive energy stifling our tiny headquarters. (In their defense, it was the early 2010’s and the messages we sold to girls then were very different.)

Perhaps if that ‘sisterhood’ had been more like the sisterhood in Seafire, I would have stayed. There’s not a girl on the Mors Navis who wouldn’t give their life for another crew member in a heartbeat. And Caledonia was the compass everyone looked to for direction, the person whose “job was not to save them…[but to] lead them.” We all love sweeping tales of loyalty, but it isn’t duty to a cause or a country that drives these girls to follow Caledonia. They follow her simply because they trust — and love — her. And trust and leadership occurs here in an equal, fluid exchange: part of Caledonia’s journey is learning that being part of a crew means she also needs to let the crew take care of her once in a while.

And it’s wonderful that girls of today have this model of true sisterhood to refer to, where there’s no drama among girls; where it’s okay to be humbled by the amazing lady next to you and yet be empowered by her respect of you as well.

Subtle but no less powerful is the way the book also touches on the subject of addiction and rehab. Aric Athair controls his Bullets with Silt, a drug made from baleflower blossoms. Early on, the story establishes that there’s no reasoning with Bullets. When faced with one, they will betray your mercy and offer you none of their own. The world is cautioned that all Bullets — and thus, all addicts — are soulless, evil, and incapable of change.

But is that still the case when an addict is someone dear to you? When you realize that if they could have helped it, addiction wouldn’t have been the path they chose? What makes an addict you don’t personally know less human than one you do? These are questions I am eager for the series to answer. In the meantime, it leaves the reader (especially those of us in the Philippines) with plenty of time to explore their own thoughts about addiction and the hope of rehabilitation.

Girls you won’t stop thinking about

The first book ends with hints of the world expanding beyond the Mors Navis. Caledonia can’t seem to understand that her personal life doesn’t exist in a vacuum apart from the Mors Navis, and her choices land them all in uncertain waters. There’s a smidgen of unresolved romance, but it’s so insignificant to the story that the plot would have gone just as spectacularly (or even better) without it — just as this review would have worked fine without this sentence! And we haven’t even had the pleasure of meeting Aric Athair himself, who is currently still enveloped in the mystery of the Almighty Endgame Final Boss.

As a long-time reader of trilogies, I have my fears that after a smashing debut, the series won’t be able to sustain momentum all the way to the end. But that’s a reflection of how high this first book has set the bar. I make no disclaimers or apologies when I tell people that if there’s one book they should read this year, barring genres, it’s Seafire. (Goodness knows it’s impossible to read it only once, anyway!)

It’s many moons until the next book, but Seafire leaves us with much to ponder in the interim. Until then, hoist your eyes and imagine what your own world would be like if it were run by diverse, deservingly talented women in more visible and ubiquitous roles.

Spoiler alert: it would be smooth sailing.

Originally published on the Fully Booked blog on October 10, 2018.

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