Vampirates #1: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Read: 29 August, 2018

Eons ago, I spotted a book in the bargain bin of my local bookstore called Vampirates. At that price, there was no chance in heck that I wouldn’t buy a book called Vampirates! I mean, that’s just amazing! I bet Somper is incredibly glad that he stumbled onto the name first. In fact, I bet the name alone has half made his career!

Unfortunately, the Vampirates I bought was Tide of Terror – the second book in the series. I didn’t want to start with the second book, but I also wasn’t intrigued enough by the name alone to justify buying the first book at full price.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and I found Demons of the Ocean on a friend’s shelf. She, also, had seen the amazing title of Vampirates on a book that was on sale, and also decided that it was worth buying for that alone. Between the two of us, we had purchased enough material to judge the series on more than just that incredible name.

And… it’s fine.

It drags a bit, particularly for a children’s book. Within the first few pages, the heroes’ last remaining parent has died and they’ve run away to sea. Only, they’ve capsized and each been rescued by a different pirate ship – Connor by normal human pirates, Grace by the titular Vampirates. And that’s basically it. They each make a friend, they each get to know their captain, and very little else happens. There’s pages upon pages of nothing happening.

On the plus side, there are a few moments of legitimate horror. There is a scene where Grace runs afoul of a Vampirate and I honestly started to wonder if I should be reading it aloud to my kid (it actually wasn’t all that gruesome, and I don’t think he picked up on the rape analogy at all). There’s also some fairly good creepy atmosphere while Grace is still working out what kind of ship she’s on, and I liked Connor’s moral difficulty with the whole pirating biz.

The setting is a little confusing. The story explicitly takes place in the future, but the in-story details all point to a fantasy-infused past. There are hints that there’s been an ecological disaster, and that’s why the society feels so “set back”, but there are no remnants of the modern world. Placing the story in the future adds nothing, while setting up expectations that aren’t met.

All in all, I found this to be much better than a series called Vampirates has any right to be. It isn’t fantastic, by any means, but it’s a solid children’s story with some good adventure and thrills.

Continue reading

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Read: 29 February, 2016

John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

Buy On Stranger Tides from Amazon and support this blog!