Redemption, Remaking, and Revolution: Natalie C. Parker’s Steel Tide

Caledonia Styx returns knife-quick and bright as ever in Steel Tide, the thrilling, propulsive second installment of the Seafire trilogy. The novel picks up right where the first left off, Caledonia’s seafaring sisterhood pitted against the drugged and manipulated Bullet army, which is led by the vicious Aric Athair. A failed plot to destroy Aric and the murderous Bullet, Lir, leaves Caledonia horribly wounded and, worse, separated from her crew. She wakes to find herself recuperating in a camp of unlikely allies: former Bullets.

They call themselves Blades, and they hate Aric and the Bullets just as much as Caledonia—they know his tyranny firsthand. It’s not easy at first for Caledonia to trust a former Bullet—the first time she did, it cost her nearly everything. The second time, though, it gave her Oren, who became invaluable to the crew of the Mors Navis, and to Caledonia herself. She can’t deny, though, that the Blades saved her. They saw firsthand how fearless and dedicated a captain Caledonia has proved herself to be, and what’s more, they’ll do whatever it takes to fight Aric’s reign of terror and torture.

Caledonia rallies the Blades into a dangerous plot to claim a ship and rescue her crew. But regaining her sisters is only the first step. Seafire and Steel Tide take place in a treacherous seascape that feels distinctly post-apocalyptic, in which most of the world has drowned, resources are scant, and the seas are crucial for survival. Aric and Lir won’t stop until entire oceans and what little remains of land is under Bullet control. Caledonia comes to discover the magnitude of the danger, and just how much power Aric wields. She realizes that choosing to fight him, despite the terrifying odds, might be the only chance they have to save the world.

Steel Tide builds on the successes of Seafire, deepening characters and emotions, hoisting the stakes sky-high. In the first installment, Parker brought us the fiercest, most emotionally mature and inclusive girl gang at sea. This energy returns and redoubles with the introduction of new and compelling characters, but now they are shifted by grief, and forced to confront terrible choices. More than ever, they rely on trust, healthy communication, and the strength of their solidarity.

For me, one of the most vindicating, fulfilling storylines of these books is the throughline of female friendship and queernormativity. The Mors Navis and Caledonia’s story alike are centered on these dynamics, and on highlighting many ways strength manifests. Though romance takes a backseat to survival, strategy, and sisterhood in this volume, the entire story is steeped in queerness and feminist revolution, making for a wholly refreshing sci-fi adventure narrative. Uncontested queer identity and desire is intrinsic to the world of Seafire, and here in Steel Tide there are tender moments devoted to them. It’s invigorating to read an action-packed, high-stakes adventure centered on an inclusive crew of queer women who love as fiercely as they fight.

It’s to Caledonia’s advantage that she has allies new and old alike by her side, as Steel Tide demands that she question not only her world and her trust, but her own moral code. All the Bullets were innocents, once, before Aric murdered their families and left them with nowhere else to turn—including Caledonia’s own brother, Donnally. Now, under the influence of the drug Silt, they torture, pillage, and devastate at Aric’s command. Oren and the Blades, however, are living proof that the Bullets can renounce their ways and fight back against Aric. His poisonous, violent rhetoric can be undone and unlearned, at least for some Bullets, when they’re given a chance and a choice. Caledonia needs to convert some of them if she has a hope of defeating Aric—and converting them is the only way to save these once-innocent lives, Donnally’s included. But how can Caledonia know the right time to take that risk?

At the same time, she needs to use force to defeat Aric and save everything she’s ever loved, but how many of the enemy’s tactics can she use before she becomes as vicious as them? “We can resist them as long as we don’t become them.” It’s her mother who said the words initially, but Caledonia last heard them from her best friend, Pisces. For the Blades, this advice would come too late. “For us,” says a young Blade, Triple, “it’s more that we have to unbecome them. We have to become something else, and we have to keep choosing what that is.” Triple’s words resonate through Caledonia’s world but also, our own: we must unlearn the toxic scripts that we have been taught, we must rework and remake ourselves, consciously, into who we want to be. A revolution is the last time to forget exactly what kind of future we’re building towards. “Just remember,” Pisces reminds, “that we’re fighting to change the world that forces us to make choices like this.”

Steel Tide is a clever, stunning follow-up, brimming with pulsing, twisting action and unique, immersive atmosphere. Parker elegantly marries buoyant battle scenes with fresh, compelling character dynamics and questionable morality all at once. Caledonia, in all her messiness, in all her desires and her painful coming of age, is an excellent captain figure. She knows how hard it can be to make these choices, to be strong when she’s terrified, to know that victory in battle always comes at a cost. She knows that the battle is bigger than one conflict—that there’s an entire future at risk, and someone will need to rebuild it right. She always refocusing on what’s at stake, who she is, and what she’s fighting for. I would follow her into a storm any day.

Steel Tide is not only a successful sequel, but a glorious vindication. It celebrates sisterhood and queernormativity in the face of selfishness and cruelty. It delves into the tangled ethics of revolution and redemption. It knows that the environment is the future, that protecting how we grow and till this earth is the only way we will be permitted to remain living on it. It knows that becoming a villain is easy, but fighting your way back to the right side of morality is possible, worth it, and necessary. Steel Tide will certainly leave readers hungry to return to Caledonia and her crew for the finale of this salt-bright, smart, explosive trilogy.

Steel Tide is available from Razorbill.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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