It’s spooky season my friends, and that means stories about ghosts and ghouls and creepy-crawlies that go bump in the night. Many of us could — and do! — read Halloween-y books year ’round, but occasionally we need to look around for a good old fashioned palate cleanser. And what’s that I see on the horizon, sailing out of a clear blue sky, with red sails and an ominously skeletal flag? Is that…a pirate ship?
Who doesn’t love a story of dashing, derring-do and some swashbuckling in the bargain? Ahoy are stories of ships and the sea and magic and mermaids. Airships and kissing — the kiss, IYKYK — and love and loss and everything in between.
Pirates continue to capture the imagination because they are agents of anti-capitalist, anarchic chaos. They refuse to follow the rules of the land, instead taking what they can and giving nothing back. They are dangerous, but often have a soft heart (in literature, at least), and the denizens of a pirate ship are made up of the ultimate group of misfits. Misfits whose criteria for adding a crew member is not tied to race or class or wealth, but instead to ability, wit, and a hefty dash of chutzpah.
Buckle up, me hearties, because I have got some boo-tyful treasure for you (I can’t help it. I’m not even sorry).
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
If you haven’t read this book, it might be because you think it’s the long version. Y’know, the one with all the boring stuff left in that Grandpa left out. But lucky for us, this is the Grandpa-edited version (with the kissing left in), and it’s just as wonderful as the movie while also being different enough that it’ll keep you entertained. An oldie but a goodie. A goldie, one might say. Someone stop me please.
The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Orphans Flora and her brother joined the crew of The Dove in order to escape the freezing alleys of their native city. Flora became Florian for safety, but when Lady Hasegawa boards The Dove en route to her arranged marriage, Florian finds himself drawn to her. The two of them must escape the lives that other people have planned for them. This is a haunting and lovely book that I cannot recommend highly enough from my real-life neighbor.
Never, Never by Brianna Shrum
Captain Jas. Hook is one of the most dastardly and famous pirates ever to sail the seas or skies. But villains are rarely born; they are more often made. This is the story of how a boy who desperately wanted to grow up followed a boy who never wanted to Neverland on holiday, about how Peter refused to take him home, and how he became the only Lost Boy to become an adult.
A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee
I planned to include Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island on this list, but instead I came across C.B. Lee’s A Clash of Steel and I am captivated. Lee’s story is a retelling not only of Treasure Island, but also of Chinese legendary badass pirate queen Ching Shih, known as The Head of the Dragon. Xiang’s only memento of her dead father is a pendant, which reveals a hidden secret of his life with Shih’s Dragon Fleet. Xiang sets off to find the hidden treasure with the help of Anh and Anh’s motley crew. High seas and adventure ensue.
By Sea & Sky by Antoine Bandele
Zala doesn’t have a lot of skill with a sword and she doesn’t have any magic, but she knows the Sapphire Seas. She also has her wits, and she knows how to use them. But with her husband deathly ill and time to plunder enough ships to save him running out, she needs some luck. And that’s when the giant airship arrives.
Based on stories from the West Indies, Arabia, and the Swahili Coast, this story swashes and buckles. Plus, it’s book 1 of a duology, so double the fun!
The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara
Mary Reade was born in England in 1685. Her mother, a poor alcoholic, encouraged her to dress as a boy to get her grandmother’s inheritance. She married her childhood sweetheart, but when he died she shipped off to the West Indies, dressed again as a man because women weren’t safe on the high seas. But then she joined the crew of the infamous pirate Calico Jack Rackham, met Anne Bonny, and fell in love with a lady pirate.
You would be excused if you thought this sounds like fiction. The story of Mary Read(e) and Anne Bonny is real, and McNamara’s retelling is a thing of beauty.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
Jack is well on his way to becoming a respected sailor among the crew of the HMS Dolphin, and he is delighted. He doesn’t have to scrounge for food anymore in the filthy streets of 18th century London, he’s got a family — well, crew mates — and he’s a pirate.
He’s also a girl. And keeping the crew from discovering this secret is going to take all of Jack’s skill, wits, and courage.
Meyer’s Bloody Jack series stretches for 12 books, all of which have 4+ stars on goodreads.com. Dive in!
Raven the Pirate Princess by Jeremy Whitley
The Raven series is a spinoff of Whitley’s popular Princeless graphic novels. Raven is the only daughter of the Pirate King, but her brothers have stolen her legacy and she is out to get it back — starting with stealing her father’s old ship. Next, to assemble a crew and exact her revenge, come heck or high water.