Tanith Lee,
(Hodder, 2003; Dutton, 2004)

Artemesia Fitz-Willoughby Weatherhouse was practicing grace and deportment, as befits a fine young lady of early 19th-century British society, when a clumsy tumble down the stairs restored lost recollections of her youth. Now 16, she suddenly remembers the accident six years earlier when an exploding cannon on her mother's pirate ship robbed her of both her memories and her mom. No longer content to be a "lady" -- and thoroughly despising the father whose only wish for her was to suppress her natural instincts and personality -- Artemesia escapes her rigid school and seeks some means to resume her former life.

After an unexpected encounter with a notorious English highwayman, Artemesia makes her way to a seedy dockside tavern, where she finds a large portion of her mother's former crew making a bare living as coffee salesmen. But they, though pleased to see this younger model of their beloved former leader, have more memories of hers to restore -- particularly those proving that Art's version of events were never true. They weren't pirates, the crewmen insist, but actors portraying pirates on stage. Their popular productions -- with Art's mother always starring in the lead role of the good-spirited and merciful pirate queen Piratica -- were so realistic that they had impressed on young Art's mind memories more vivid than the truth.

Or did they? Tanith Lee's young-adult novel Piratica has a good many twists and turns in the plot before readers discover the real story of this young girl's past. But, until they surface, Art isn't content to pass her time in that seedy pub; instead, she -- now using the name Art Blastside -- leads her acting troupe to sea, where they commandeer a ship and make their fiction into reality under her mother's trademark black-on-pink Jolly Roger.

While Lee's attempts to make Piratica's world slightly different from our own by changing place names -- the Amer Ricas, Afric, Mad-Agash Scar and, oddly, France -- the only difference that makes any difference at all is England itself, where the monarchy has been toppled and a Free Republic stands in its place.

Compared to some of Lee's other, more mature fiction, Piratica is a trifle awkward and oddly paced, and its heroine is just a little bit too good at everything she tries to do. Acting solely on memories from, in some cases, her infancy, she demonstrates unparalleled skill at seamanship and knowledge of the sea. Her crew, meanwhile, is presented as a tight collection of actors who, once prodded by their 16-year-old captain, excel at all things nautical. It stretches even the most pliable limits of belief.

Not that Piratica isn't an enjoyable read. It is, and I was never tempted to cast it aside; Lee's mastery of character and plot are too deft not to hold my interest. Still, a far better example of young-girl-as-pirate fiction can be found in the pages of L.A. Meyers' excellent Bloody Jack series, which I heartily recommend. Even so, I am sure I'll want to read Piratica II if the opportunity presents itself.

review by
Tom Knapp

8 March 2008

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