Five Books About…

Five Nautical SFF Books to Read When You’re Far From Shore

My husband is a professional magician. To answer your first question: No, I don’t know how he does his tricks—it’s more fun for me if I don’t know, though as a big fan of fantasy I suppose I’m more inclined to want to believe in the magical than others. To answer your second question: he makes money a lot of different ways—private events, corporate events, consulting for theme parks and, last but not least, performing on cruise ships.

Sometimes I get to go with him on cruise ships for free, which is a lovely perk. The downside is I can’t do much work on my own, as cruise WiFi is often spotty and almost always very expensive. The upside of the downside, however, is that I have hours upon hours of free time to read, especially if we’re on a cruise that’s taking a two-week-long journey from one side of an ocean to the other.

When I pack for these trips, I spend more time deliberating over what books to bring than what clothes to wear. What I end up bringing is pretty varied, but there’s usually at least one extra-long tome (I’ve read every book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive on a ship, for example) as well as a nautical-themed novel or two that goes well with the fact I’m encircled by millions of tons of saltwater. Here are five books I’ve read at sea that have the ocean as an integral part of their stories. They’re so good, in fact, that I’m sure they’re equally enjoyable on land.


The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes

Rivers Solomon’s debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, was one of the best books I read in 2017, so when their next book, The Deep, came out this year (and revolved around a water-dwelling people) I quickly snatched it up for my next time on a ship. The story is inspired by a song by the group clipping, and follows Yetu, a wajinru who is one of the water-breathing descendants of African slave women thrown overboard during their crossing of the sea. Yetu is the historian of her people, the one burdened to remember their 600-year history while the other wajinru live solely in the present. The exception to this is during the annual Remembrance, when Yetu shares the collected memories of her people with the rest of the wajinru and, for a day or two, is unburdened with remembering herself. The pain of bearing the entirety of wajinru history is slowly killing Yetu, and so she flees after one Remembrance, leaving her people vulnerable and lost in the memories she has transferred to them. Her journey from there is heartbreaking but also hopeful, and the novella beautifully explores the struggle to know and understand your past without becoming consumed by it.


Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Miller’s dystopian tale takes place on a barely floating city near the Arctic Circle called Qaanaaq, one of the few places left on the planet that hasn’t fallen to ruin after climate change and the spread of a genetically-engineered disease that has wiped out much of civilization. The worldbuilding of Qaanaaq, which is powered by thermal vents and organized into eight different sectors, is full of rich details that make the city come to life, especially when the imagery of the waves sloshing against Qaanaaq is eerily similar to the waves pounding against the side of the ship you’re on. Add in well-developed characters and the ability for certain humans to bond to orcas and/or polar bears make this story a resonant albeit sometimes scary one when traveling at sea.


The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Christina Henry is best known for her dark fairy tale retellings. The Mermaid, however, is less grim than her other works and follows Amelia, a mermaid who falls in love with a Maine fisherman and then, when he is taken away from her by the sea, decides to become an attraction in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. Amelia is a wonderfully strong character who, as a creature of the ocean, is unburdened by the societal constraints placed on women in the mid-1800s, especially the expectation that she should be quiet and demure in public. She knows who she is, and she knows who she loves, and her story is an engaging yet soothing one that also made my heart ache in the best way.


The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Being at sea, especially in the Caribbean, often brings pirates to mind. If you’re looking for a lighthearted pirate read that has an engaging romantic side plot, Heilg’s Young Adult novel The Girl From Everywhere may be of interest. In this book we follow Nix, a 16-year-old girl who lives aboard her father’s time-traveling ship. Nix and her father have a complicated relationship, and things only get more complicated when he seeks a map of 1868 Honolulu, which would allow him to travel to that time and place and save the life of his love, even though doing so could make Nix cease to exist. The Girl From Everywhere is immersive storytelling, and you can’t help but be pulled into the world Heilig has created and root for Nix to not only survive, but also to figure out her own love triangle between her, her best friend Kashmir and Blake, a young man she meets in 1800s Honolulu.


A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

Yes, I know A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in Schwab’s Shades of Magic series. And yes, I know only part of that book is on the high seas, where Lila Bard, under the tutelage of the swarthy sea captain Alucard Emery, learns to control her magic while also becoming a proper pirate, one who is able to plunder entire ships by herself, no less I love this part of the book; Lila and Alucard’s life on The Black Spire is as encompassing as any pirate novel, and the world Schwab creates for them, such as their trip to the ever-moving black market on the Ferase Stras, speaks to a whole society that doesn’t spend much time on land. Speaking of land, the rest of the novel is also amazing. I love the entire trilogy, in fact, and look forward to my next long time at sea so I have the time to re-read all three in order.


These books are varied yes, but they all take your brain on a fantastical ride, away from the monotony of endless waves and the same food at the breakfast buffet. So if you find yourself in the middle of the ocean in the near future, be sure to leave some space for a book or twenty. Your imagination will thank you.

Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find a portfolio of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.


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