Sixteen-year-old Jill is a competitive fencer trying to make it to the Olympics. When she loses a crucial bout against a fighter she should have been able to beat, she’s beset by doubts about her capabilities. A few months after the disastrous tournament, she’s on vacation with her family in the Bahamas when she discovers a rusty and battered piece of metal on a deserted beach. She instantly recognizes her find as part of a real-life rapier, and pockets it as a souvenir.
What she doesn’t know is that the steel shard is from the eighteenth century—and it wants to go home. Jill’s dragged back in time to the golden age of piracy, where she is taken prisoner aboard the Diana—an honest-to-goodness pirate ship captained by Marjory Cooper, an honest-to-goodness lady pirate. Terrified and alone, Jill is forced to throw her lot in with Diana’s crew, even as she desperately searches for a way home.
Vaughn is a capable and energetic writer. (Though I haven’t read any of her other books, her Kitty Norville series, about a lady werewolf/talk radio host, is much beloved.) Jill is a believably cranky adolescent, and it’s nice to see Vaughn let her be flawed nearly to the point of unlikeability in the book’s opening chapters. She’s a good fighter, but she’s no match for the pirates; who fight, as she quickly realizes, for keeps. Her struggle to come to terms with her unexpected new life is as rocky as you’d expect. The food is gross, the work is hard, and the ship’s doctor is pretty sketchy: it’s no fairytale, piracy.
For me, though, the supernatural elements of the story didn’t mesh well with the historical setting. The initial conceit—Jill’s inadvertent leap back in time—is easy enough to accept, but the subsequent fantastical details are harder to swallow. There’s a piece of black magic thrown in toward the very end that’s downright hokey, and in places the fantasy feels as though it’s lifted from another book entirely. Likewise, Jill’s pirates are almost suspiciously benevolent—they battle the bad guy (who, of course, is REALLY bad), but nobody dies; they hijack slave ships and cheerily offer the freed slaves a new life in Jamaica; Marjory has a bit of a Mr. Miyagi thing going, where she instills in Jill the valor of hard, mindless work while secretly elevating her to a more enlightened state of being. While I imagine keelhauling, scurvy, and doldrums-inspired mutiny are probably a little rough for YA, it’s a bit hard to wholly believe Marjory’s kindhearted reign of tough love. (There were, however, lady pirates, a fact Vaughn notes in the book’s afterword.)
That said, there’s plenty to enjoy about Steel. Jill matures nicely from a petulant grump to a resourceful and courageous apprentice pirate. The “romance” (much ballyhooed on the cover and in the jacket copy) turns out to be a nicely developed friendship between Jill and a young mixed-race crewman who takes her on as a sort of project. Vaughn has hit gold (arrrr! ... sorry) in Marjory, an enjoyably complex and feisty character who steals most of the scenes she’s in.
Vaughn’s pacing is snappy, her supporting characters are satisfyingly swashbuckly (or sinister, as called for), and her prose is smart and well-crafted. Although the obsessive crank in me grumbled a little at the pirates’ (thoroughly fictive) anarcho-pacifist bent, Vaughn has filled the book with historical details that do ring true. And while it’s clear she’s done her research, the facts don’t bog down the story; instead, they form a rich and believable backdrop for the main action of the plot. She clearly has a special love for fencing, and it shows: the fight scenes in particular shine, and Jill’s sweaty, backbreaking progress from a fencer to a swordswoman will resonate with anyone who’s ever worked hard to achieve a difficult physical goal.
Strong writing, engaging characters, and salty historical detail make Steel a story that will appeal to adventure fans. It will certainly leave you grateful to live in an era where the treatment for a broken arm does not involve amputation, and where you don’t have to down a ration of rum in order to distract you from the displeasing nature of your dinner.
The Rejectionist isn’t much of a sailor, but she would be happy to spend some time on your yacht. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.