The advantage of long bus rides: much time to read while someone else deals with the traffic.
I was fully intending not to shop at Philcon, but how could I resist a Tanith Lee novel with the subtitle "Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventure Upon the High Seas"? I hadn't realized Tanith Lee wrote YA fiction, but I was certainly game to try it.
Piratica (Dutton, 2004) is the tale of one Artemesia Fitz-Willoughby Weatherhouse, daughter of deceased pirate queen Molly Faith and currently a student at the Angels Academy for Young Maidens in the year Seventeeen-Twelvety in an England that is just a bit different from our own. This is a fantasy world in the swashbuckling romance-of-piracy sense, not in the dragons-and-magic sense, though there are some unusually well-trained parrots. Artemesia has some memory problems as after-effects of the cannon explosion that killed her mother, but once she remembers her past (or does she?), she doesn't stay long at the Academy. Enter one Art Blastsides, would-be pirate queen; her parrot Plunqwette; and her scurvy crew, currently working as adverteers for a coffee magnate.
After some land-based adventurers involving an old theater, a highwayman named Gentleman Jack Cuckoo, and the unfortunate artist Felix Phoenix, we do eventually get off to the high seas and a pirate adventure complete with a treasure map and a villainous competing pirate queen named Little Goldie Girl. Tanith Lee exercises her formidable worldbuilding skills to take us to colorful locales slightly skewed from our own geography, including Lundun town, Grinwich, the pirate island of Mad-Agash Scar, and the terrible Doldrums. The crew includes the mysterious ex-slave Ebad Vooms; the terrible cook Whuskery; brothers Salt Peter and Salt Walter; the Eirish officer Eerie O'Shea; Black Knack (also know for his Hamlet); and the amazing Muck, the Cleanest Dog in England.
I don't want to say too much about the plot, which is a bit more convoluted than it first appears and worth experiencing at Lee's pace. So, talking around it, a few thoughts:
The novel is slyly feminist: one outraged ship captain angrily asks, "Is none of England's crime in decent male hands?" And it's also an interesting meditation on the borders of acting and the commonalities of piracy and theater. That was a nifty bonus for me; I didn't expect to find this as much a novel of the theater as of the high seas. I was also impressed that it includes both some interracial romance and an effeminate (probably gay, though it's not explicit) pirate fully accepted by all. Neither element is considered unusual enough to warrant comment within the story. There are also just enough horrible puns scattered throughout to amuse without become annoying.
Piratica is tremendous fun and perfectly workable for adult readers all the way down to, I think, preteens (though I'm not a good judge of age-appropriateness). I highly recommend it for young women/girls in particular but also for anyone who just likes a good pirate tale. Though I can't find any way to classify this as steampunk, it has a feel very similar to that of the Larklight books, with the advantage of having a heroine who is not a girly-girl and for whom "plucky" is an entirely inadequate term.
There are apparently two sequels, which I've ordered and will report back on soon. In the meantime, read for yourself: