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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Skulls and Crossbones, Tales of Women Pirates

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Skulls and Crossbones, Tales of Women Pirates
Edited by Andi Marquette and R. G. Emanuelle

“Ladgarda” by Christine Rains
“The Gallows” by Jove Belle
“Valkyry” by Rakelle Valencia
“Lost Treasure” by R. G. Emanuelle
“The Hangman’s Dance” by Jane Fletcher
“The Furies” by Rajan Khanna
“Devil’s Bargain” by Andi Marquette
“Fifty Octaves Deep” by Alice Godwin
“HMS Nefarious,” by Rod Santos
“Pirate Wannabe” by Aubrie Dionne
“Road Pirate Wanted” by Victoria Oldham
“The Brahmapur Buccaneer” by Matthew Fryer
“The Kindness of Strangers” by Vicki Stevenson
“Resolution 1838” by David Brookes
“The After” by Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
“Captain, Hook, and Mr. Shrike” by Cat Conley
“A Perfect Life” by Elaine Burnes
“Stardance” by Trace Miller
“The Passenger” by Megan Magill
“Pipettes for the Pirate” by Holly Ellingwood

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

Arr, matey—by the time ye reads this, International Talk Like a Pirate Day will be all over, but ye c’n still get yer buccaneerin’ fix with this yere anthology. Arr. Okay, enough of that. This is a new anthology; all the stories with the exception of “The Furies” are new, written for this book. Women pirates, you say? What the….

Actually, there have been women pirates all along; they weren’t just camp followers and hangers-on—two of the best known are Anne Bonney and Mary Read, both eighteenth-century freebooters, who led interesting lives indeed. If you want some fun reading, Google these two and follow all the links. Nevertheless, most pirate ships would not allow women on board, and any who dressed as men were, by the “pirate code,” under threat of death. (Did I say code? More of a guideline, really…) But pirates have captured our imaginations for years, and the editors of this anthology are determined that the distaff side shall have its day. Besides the theme of female pirates, this book is also notable for being the first genre anthology I’ve read that more than hints at same-sex love on the high seas.

A note on the above: I don’t personally care if, like Monty Python, you’re into a watermelon and a stuffed goose; as far as sexual politics, love, etc. are concerned I’m happy if you’re happy and all parties concerned are above the age of consent, consenting, and able to understand what they’re consenting to. But I believe the majority of SF/F readers are still, shall we say, kinda middle-class, middle-of-the-road, straight, etc. So they need to know if their values are going to be tested in any way by a book or story I’m reviewing, in my opinion. Fair enough? Let’s look inside.

“Ladgarda” by Christine Rains concerns one Ladgarda, who is apparently a Viking warrior who commands a fleet of longships, but prefers a drekar, or dragon ship, for its speed in battle. Her ex-husband is Ragnar, who apparently rules in Stockholm, but there is insurrection afoot, and Ladgarda comes to Ragnar’s aid, helping to crush the rebellion. She learns that Ragnar is taking a young bride, and lays her plans. I found it hard to credit her fighting ability, as she is described as looking dainty, even in her armor, yet she hacks “into a huge bearded man and kick[s] his corpse into the sea.” The story seems well researched, and well written, but doesn’t have enough believability and immediacy for my taste.

“The Gallows” by Jove Belle is an oddity—there are two unnamed protagonists: the one whose viewpoint we share, who is talking to himself in the moments before the hangman springs the trap; and the other is a woman he found in a tavern, and who learned the trade of piracy from him. The story details not only how he and she wound up on the gallows, but everything from their first meeting up to this point. Perhaps because the background of the woman is explained, this works better than the first story for me. It’s also the first story of several that feature same-sex (female) lovemaking (not explicit here). Interesting, and one of the better stories.

“Valkyry” by Rakelle Valencia is about Edwyna (called “Valkyry,” as “all Viking women are called Valkyry,” according to the story) who, along with her brother Bjorn, has no last name—their father unwilling to publicly give the siblings his patronym, but who follows their Viking exploits. Bjorn captains the drakkar (variant of “drekar”) that shares his name (“Bear”); his sister fights alongside him. When Bjorn is killed in battle, his father calls his corpse home to give him and his sister their proper name, and marry his sister off. But marriage is not the fate Edwyna wants. This is well written, and has immediacy—but also reads like an introductory chapter for a longer piece—maybe we’ll see a novel from Valencia.

“Lost Treasure” by R. G. Emanuelle (one of the editors) concerns one Rianne, captain of the pirate vessel Queen’s Wrath, who has aroused the wrath of her crew by stealing a chalice from the spoils before they are distributed among the crew. By the Pirate Code (incidentally, there really was one—called the Articles of Agreement), which varied from ship to ship, but one thing they all agreed on was that the spoils were shared equally* by all hands from the captain on down (*the captain and first mate getting double shares). But Rianne has a personal reason for wanting this chalice—it actually used to belong to her, although that argument cuts no ice with the crew, who mutiny—eventually, she is marooned in a longboat. But she manages to steal the chalice anyway, along with gold—and the crew gives chase. Rianne meets Marcella, a nun, on the island she was sent off to in the longboat, and the story takes an unusual and (for me) unbelievable twist. This story also has just a hint of same-sex attraction. Why is this so noticeable in many of these female-written pirate stories? Maybe it’s coincidence, or maybe the authors are exploring fantasies. I don’t see a lot of male-male fantasies in published fantasy, at least so far. (I’m not counting “slash” fiction, as most is not professionally published, and a lot is extremely explicit.)

“The Hangman’s Dance” by Jane Fletcher continues the theme of woman-woman pirate action; the protagonist is one “John Cooper,” who is a soldier in disguise, and who wants to take captive the pirate “Grim Mary,” a bloodthirsty reaver. In the Golden Fleece, a tavern that caters to the buccaneer trade, he meets Rosa, one of the resident whores, who also has a grievance against Grim Mary. Unlike the previous stories, this one gets a bit more explicit in its sexual descriptions, but here the sexual action is part of the story, not really a gratuitous addition. Though the climax may be a bit far-fetched, the writing is skillful enough to carry it through.

“The Furies” by Rajan Khanna is about Michael, who was impressed into the crew of the Mandrake as a boy, and has fought and plundered (but not raped—and that’s important to the story) alongside the crew, who are the only family he’s ever known. But when the crew of the Harpy attacks the Mandrake, killing all but Michael, his life takes a strange turn. The Furies are the Harpy’s crew, and all are masked (surprise—they turn out to be all women); they keep Michael alive so he can tell them about every item in the Mandrake’s hoard of treasure. Although this was well written, I find it hard to credit an experienced male pirate crew (or several, as this was not the Harpy’s first conquest) being overwhelmed by an all-female crew—especially wearing masks! Masks would hamper fighters, no matter who, in my opinion. Again, in my opinion, if a major turning-point of a story fails, the whole story falls into the realm of “let’s suspend all reason for the sake of telling a tale”—and that, folks, I can’t do.

“Devil’s Bargain” by Andi Marquette (the other editor) tells the tale of Lady Sarah Churchill, who left England to find her family’s stolen gold, and was betrayed, after she found it, by Blakesly, the captain of the Queen’s Rest, whose first mate, Crenshaw, left Sarah to die on the proverbial desert isle with a cutlass wound through her gut. Sarah is rescued by Nefi, captain of the Black Angel, who offers her endless life as a crew member, or death on the island. Yes, folks, this is the first (that I know of) vampire pirate story! The details of the revenge are fairly standard, as are the details of Sarah’s adaptation to vampire life (most of her feeding being done ashore); it’s the concept that’s new, which sort of makes this story sui generis. I liked it for that reason. (Again, hints of same-sex action.)

“Fifty Octaves Deep” by Alice Godwin concerns one Aphrodite who, with her six sisters (also named from Greek myth) ply the ocean depths in the Harpina, seeking prey on the surface; the title refers to the way they capture those ships—like the sirens of myth, they ensnare them with song and wreck them on the numerous reefs where they live, leaving no survivors. Then they plunder the sunken wreckage. The time frame is uncertain—it could be today or a century ago.

But Talia, the captain and oldest sister, has a nemesis—her ex-husband Orpheus, who with his cousin Perseus and his other companions, ply the skies in their ship. Both groups are after the legendary Necklace of Harmonium, which is rumored to be traveling the waters in a cargo ship, and which will grant powers unknown to the wearer. Although I wouldn’t call the Nereids pirates per se, as in my view a pirate is someone who flouts society’s laws in search of booty—and the Nereids can’t really be called part of society. The story’s an interesting one; the premise also. Worth a read for sure.

“HMS Nefarious,” by Rod Santos is about Wilhelmina Hardwicke, masquerading as Willoughby Hardwicke, captain in the Royal Navy via a purchased commission (since the Navy won’t allow women to serve) and master of the HMS Persistence—now disguised as the Nefarious, a notorious pirate ship. Indeed, all the Navy sailors are disguised as pirates, in a ruse designed to capture the famous pirate Redbeard and his Black Spot.

But Hardwicke has a problem; her men are sailors, not actors—even her first mate, who goes by the pirate name of Chumbucket Doylee, is rather effetely transparent. But then they find Redbeard’s second-in-command, a man named Bones Benedict, marooned on an island, and things take a turn for the better. Cleverly written, with loads of humor, this story will keep you amused.

“Pirate Wannabe” by Aubrie Dionne tells the tale of Clare Wardly, who follows her friend Tara on an endless round of tours of New England’s museums, especially those that deal with pirates. Clare herself is bored stiff with history, and especially pirates; not even an exhibit about Ravishing Robert, Pirate King of the Seven Seas, can rouse her interest. Even when she sees an exhibit with part of the original mast from Robert’s ship, the Lichen, with Robert’s sword stuck in it since that fatal battle when Snake-Eyed Sam, his first mate, stabbed him in the back so he could become The Scourge of the Seven Seas.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much how the whole story is written; Clare pulls the sword, hits her head and wakes up on the Lichen in the 18th century—the sword was enchanted by a witch and only Clare can save Robert and.... this story doesn’t work for me. If it’s supposed to be humorous, it just didn’t come through, and I don’t believe the author took this anthology’s theme as seriously as the rest of the writers.

“Road Pirate Wanted” by Victoria Oldham, on the other hand, is better fiction that at least attempts to treat its subject seriously, which is modern-day road pirates (preying on long-haul truckers). It’s also, to this point, the most explicit same-sex story in the book. Chris is a trucker with a full rig, driving on the interstate at night in a heavy rain, when she comes upon a woman standing by a broken-down Lexus with its hood up; since the road is deserted and it’s late, she naturally pulls over to help. (The fact that the woman, whose name is Shelly, she learns later is standing there with wet clothes plastered to a hot-looking body, doesn’t hurt either.)

Well, Shelly is the pirate, and Chris is the sucker; Chris gets handcuffed to the bed in the sleeper back of the cab (and things have changed a lot in trucking; the sleeper used to be a shelf where the trucker could roll in for a nap—now they’re darned near the size of a little cabin!); her load is hijacked, she loses her job and is unemployed. But Shelly’s not done with her (either professionally or personally); I’ll leave you to find out how. Kind of a cute story, but if you’re easily offended there’s a bit of sex in it.

“The Brahmapur Buccaneer” by Matthew Fryer concerns one Sambita (in India), who has stolen twenty thousand rupees (less than $500) from her husband and run away to a “people smuggler” who will take her to a new life. (The last time her husband beat her, he chipped a tooth and gave her a black eye, and Sambita is literally afraid for her life.)

The smuggler, Pradeep, has no intention of following up on his promises; instead of a comfortable, roomy box to hide in (to get past customs or whoever), he gives her an old, urine-stained (and smelling) wooden crate, then he wants her to share the box with a stranger! The stranger turns out to be Riya, who is the Brahmapur Buccaneer, and Pradeep gets more than he bargained for. Well written and with a nice non-North American flavor.

“The Kindness of Strangers” by Vicki Stevenson almost put me off at the start, because the protagonist is Robin Locksley, her partner (life & business) is Marian, and the first customers we meet at her lakeside marina are Guy Gisborne and his wife. Yes, all names borrowed from Robin Hood. Once you get past that, though, the story’s okay, with a nice contemporary nautical feeling. I can’t say a whole lot more without totally giving it away, though you’re already ahead of me, aren’t you?

“Resolution 1838” by David Brookes is about Amina, who is a Somali pirate under Mother Jamila, with her comrades Abdi, Ghedi, Mohammed and the others. They have taken a vessel for ransom, and discover that an American warship is steaming towards them and will be there in less than ten hours—and the Americans have snipers. Amina was rescued by Mother Jamila and taken willy-nilly into the pirate crew, but to survive as she grows into womanhood, she will have to become just like her—hard, flat-breasted, only womanly in the fact that she keeps her crew in line by granting them sexual favors as well as by being hard.

And to top it all off, there may be a spy on board the captured ship, someone named General Average, though the captain was accidentally killed by Ghedi before he could tell the pirate crew who he is. Tensions are running high among both pirates and captives. This is one of the strongest stories in the book, and I highly recommend it.

“The After” by Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin is pure SF; I’m not sure I’d even call it a pirate story, since it takes place in the near future after the world has, inexplicably, cooled to the extent that most people are dead, dying, freezing or have become “penitents”—convinced that the disaster is their fault, and self-flagellating is their method of atonement. Jonathan is a survivor; he and Hutchins are roaming from place to place trying to get warm, find food and shelter, but their feet are slowly freezing, and they don’t have a lot of time.

Then they meet Red; she and her crew are finding people with food, clothing, etc., and helping them to “share”—again, I’d call that survival, not piracy—and Red has a plan to sail south to warmer climes. She offers Jonathan and Hutch the chance to join their crew. Aside from my usual quibble about post-apocalyptic stories (most of them don’t take into account the enormous amount of stored goods in North America), I thought this was another extremely strong story. Recommended.

“Captain, Hook, and Mr. Shrike” by Cat Conley is another “cold” story—it’s about ice pirates in the north (of where, the author says naught); Mr. Shrike, the narrator, is the harpoonist aboard the Manticore, where they ply the icefields in search of merchant ships to loot. Their captain is the ruthless Red Jamie, who recently had the ship’s “Dizzer” killed for accidentally shooting an ice ball at the mast. (The Dizzer operates the ship’s centrifugal catapult, which can fire an ice ball up to a kilometer—and can hole a hull or blast a person to smithereens.)

The Manticore takes a new Dizzer on board, called Hook, and heads out to the icefields to seek prey. The ship walls are thin, and Shrike can hear every detail of Red Jamie’s and Hook’s lovemaking—but Hook sings a song, night after night, and lulls Shrike to sleep. But Hook molds her own iceballs, and Shrike is soon to learn what that siren song means not only to Red Jamie, but to the whole ship. An interesting story indeed, and not your usual pirate tale—if there is such a thing.

“A Perfect Life” by Elaine Burnes is about Tate and Emily, who are teleported at ten years old to a “safe” planet during a time of interstellar unrest by their parents then, along with the other children also sent there, are retrieved at twenty and trained to become space pirates, combating the same evil syndicate that stripped their home planet and enslaved and then killed their parents. In the intervening time they’ve become lovers.

Later, as pirates, they run up against the leader of the syndicate, and are forced to choose between fighting his battlecruiser and dying, surrendering for whatever unknown fate awaits them, or… is there a third alternative? While I thought the story was well written, so many parts of the premise were iffy—working teleportation from a moving ship would be a game changer that would alter the whole shape of the culture; the head of an interstellar syndicate wandering around in space in his own battlecruiser, etc.—so I’m not quite sure I can give this one an unqualified recommendation.

“Stardance” by Trace Miller tells us about Karenya and Darien, sister and brother, who have stolen a starship in order to escape from station politics (Darien is the politician) but find they could have done it better. The ISS Stardance is, in fact, a “brain ship”—far above any ordinary AI—and Darien has been “blowed up real good” (as Billy Sol Estes would have said) and is as good as dead.

And to make matters worse, the ship wants to aid in the escape, but insists on calling Karenya “Jesse” and wants to be called “Dance.” Dance embarks on a career of space piracy with Jesse the semi-willing hostage, being trained in various arts throughout the voyage. The conclusion of the story’s not really startling, but more or less satisfying to me as a reader. I kind of liked this, though it’s really a bit sketchy for what it is, and maybe needs a bit of expansion.

“The Passenger” by Megan Magill is about Seri, who with Panda and her other crew aboard Solero, ply the trade routes ostensibly as a cargo hauler with the occasional passenger (but their passenger rates are set high enough to discourage any casual tourist types)—but we know what their real day job is, don’t we? (Well, the book is about pirates, after all….) Then one day they take on a passenger, and she turns out to be Liz, someone Seri hasn’t seen for six years.

Liz knows what Seri’s doing, though, and wants to join in the pirating—since Seri is taking just enough money and possessions from the ships they hijack to keep going, Liz thinks she can make a lot more money being more thorough about their looting, but Seri puts her foot down. A confrontation is clearly on the way; how it’s resolved is revealed, with more than one surprise. A pleasant little SF tale.

“Pipettes for the Pirate” by Holly Ellingwood is the story of Ida Willar, an Earth scientist, and a Mi’kmaq, who works on a research station out in the back end of nowhere. Off shift, in a bar, she is recruited by Val, who says she has a scientific problem that Ida can probably solve in a few hours. So Ida leaves with Val, who is revealed to be the notorious space pirate Valkyrie; her ship the Valhalla has a “space cloud” attached to it (a beer cloud!) that appears to be intelligent, and is draining the ship’s engine power—and the Valhalla is being followed by the space equivalent of cops, intent on either blowing them to pieces or taking them into custody.

It’s a fairly standard SF story, with a few odd twists (like the beer cloud), and it’s resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (except the space cops’). The titular pipettes? Well, a pipette is a glass tube used to gather samples—these just happen to use teleportation instead of the researcher (or assistant) sucking on the end. Kinda silly, unless it’s just as cheap to make teleporting pipettes as to make blown glass ones. But it doesn’t harm the story in any way.