Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Steel by Carrie Vaughn

Title: Steel
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: HarperCollins/HarperTeen
Release Date: March 1, 2011
Pages: 287 pages (hardcover)
How I Got the Book: Christmas gift.

SteelIt was a slender length of rusted steel, tapered to a point at one end and jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.

This was the tip of a rapier.


Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought in dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade. When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure.

The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship. Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew. But a pirate’s life is bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home—one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.

Time travel, swordplay, and romance combine in an original high-seas adventure from New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.

Review:

After a loss at a tournament by just half a second, Jill feels blue and unsure of where she is going to go from there. Will she go back to fencing? Will she find something else to do? Her family goes on a vacation in the Bahamas, but Jill is unable to stop thinking about that half a second. Then she falls overboard during a boat tour and the strange rapier tip she picked up earlier in the trip takes her back in time to a time when pirates openly rode the Caribbean seas. In hopes of finding a way to get back home, Jill joins the crew of the Diana and serves under its captain, Marjory Cooper.

Jill was an entitled brat, plain and simple. This grated on me at first, but thank goodness for the character development that came along. She learned soon enough that she had it good back home after she spent weeks upon weeks scrubbing deck and risking her life every day. She was probably the only character that had any development. Everyone else was just a minor player on Jill’s stage, just important enough to get a name and a few traits but not important enough to get their own character arc. This was Jill’s story and her story alone.

Steel’s first half was a trudge through the minutiae of pirate life, of scrubbing the deck and cleaning rot off the ship and all the boring little details that, while establishing that pirate life is not all glamour and glitz and “arrgh!” and such, is difficult to get through. The most exciting event of the first half is an anticlimactic capture of a slave ship. Despite this, the story felt… sanitized, almost. Cleaned up so we wouldn’t see the reality beneath the reality we were shown.

The second half was a marked improvement, but it is unfair to make readers force themselves through a terrible first half to get to a worthwhile second half. The duel between Captain Blane and Jill were thrilling and the understandable reason Captain Cooper was so hellbent on finding him came to light. Even then, the twist to bring in black magic and even her pursuit of him felt like it was yanked right out of the movies despite a statement in the author’s note that the pirates were not like movie pirates.

At the very end of the book—on the penultimate page, in fact—this quote came up:
“Some of [the group of girls aged ten to twelve] looked like they didn’t believe her. Didn’t believe that there were such a thing as pirate queens at all, or that women dressed up as men and joined armies, or did anything big and amazing and adventurous (Steel, p. 286).”
For one thing, the quote came out of nowhere. Right before it, Jill pulled out her sword and let the girls look at it and then it jumped into this quote. It is as out of place in the book as the infamously offensive “feminist philosophy” quote in Alexandra Adornetto’s Halo. Before that point, there was nothing indicating such thoughts, not even any thoughts from Jill on the differences between women of the pirates’ time and women of her own time.

I thought on this unusual quote until my head hurt and I became depressed because the quote is right. Why are girls not taught thoroughly about extraordinary women from an early age? I can remember being taught about Betsy Ross and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but I remember few others and even what I did learn what little. What about women like Dr. Mary Edwards Walker? She was the first female surgeon in the US Army and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War for her contributions to the war effort. It was revoked from her in 1917 because the standards for the Medal of Honor were revised in a way that excluded her, but she kept it and wore it every day until her death in 1919. She remains the only woman ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

One can say it is because women have not done much that is extraordinary and I can say they are wrong. There are countless women like Dr. Walker who did great things, but I hardly remember learning about any of them. I only know of Dr. Walker because of a quick mention of her in what I believe was a Bathroom Reader book. No wonder the girls didn’t believe Jill if we don’t teach them about the amazing things women have done. And if we aren't teaching them they can be extraordinary too, what are we teaching them? That they're supposed to be docile and they shouldn't aspire to be great and it's their fault is someone does something inappropriate to them because they bared too much skin?

I did get away from my point there, didn't I? That entire rant there is nothing against the book. That single out-of-place quote just happened to bring some issues I've been stewing over for a while to a head.

In summary, Steel is not that bad of a book, especially if one is looking for YA novels that have hardly any romance in them. It just isn’t good enough.

2 stars!


What am I reading next?: The Raie'Chaelia by Melissa Douthit