The fast-paced plotting, focused on the tenacity of a woman who survives horrific circumstances, and Feign’s evocative prose and attention to detail quickly makes the narrative compelling: “Maybe only prison was more colorless, boring, and worm-ridden than spending day after day on a moving ship, but at least prison offered shelter from late summer sun and squall,” the protagonist memorably declares. Feign endows his characters with persuasive voices, illuminating the driving forces behind their cutthroat choices and imbuing their histories with meaning and depth. Convincing historic detail regarding maritime life, the 19th century economy, and the story’s far-flung locations brings life to a world of seafaring danger and struggles for dominance. The abuse elements of the narrative are handled with sensitivity.
While some historical novels seem so rooted in the past that their relevance is not clear to present day readers, Feign shrewdly ties his narrative of 19th century China to contemporary life by focusing on how relationships are shaped by circumstance and experiences. References to poetry and thought-provoking insights (“You can’t sail backward, so why worry about the waves behind you?”) add lyricism as this story of a woman’s resilience surges toward a conclusion that will satisfy lovers of thoughtful historical fiction.
Takeaway: A compelling novel of the resilience of a 19th-century woman forced into marriage to a pirate.
Great for fans of: Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and her World.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
One cannot mention historical fiction set in the early 19th-century South China Sea without bringing to mind James Clavell’s Tai-Pan. Feign’s work bears comparison both in its historical and geographical sweep, as well as in its readability and attention to regional historical detail.
Readers who enjoy a swashbuckling yarn will be glad Feign persisted in disinterring Cheng Yat Sou. (He) convincingly renders Cheng’s stranger-than-fiction trajectory to pirate royalty, punctuated by ripe Cantonese profanity.