One of my most anticipated books for this year was The Unbinding of Mary Reade, which is a YA story based on my favourite gang of pirates – Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. There’s a fair bit of controversial content in this book, but if you’re prepared to weather a few somewhat uncomfortable situations, then this is a very interesting read that brings Anne and Mary’s relationship to the fore.
(The e-ARC I read had no cover art, so I’ve stolen this from Goodreads. Aptly piratical.)
Book: The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by Netgalley for a fair review.
Let’s get the difficult stuff out of the way first. This is a historical novel, and pirates generally aren’t known for their wonderful treatment of women (part of the reason that Anne and Mary were so notorious is that they were so unusual for their time). This novel does not shy away from the rampant sexism and indeed sexual harassment that the female characters face – I have quite hard limits on gratuitous rape scenes, and will often DNF a book or other media which takes this even a smidgen past too far. But I actually found most of the situations in this book both believable and necessary for the plot, and nothing is described graphically. Mary’s breasts are bound when she dresses in male clothes, and the loss of this binding is what reveals her to the crew – it’s deeply uncomfortable, but I didn’t find it gratuitous. Anne’s backstory is just fact, pure historical fact, and where she is beaten it does not feel sexually derived, just part of the violence of piratical life. Others may find this crosses their personal lines, but I thought it made sense in context.
I cannot in any way speak to the transgender or genderqueer elements of Mary’s journey, so I won’t attempt to. A quick scan on Goodreads will show you lots of reviews which discuss this far better than I can. What I can speak to is Mary’s confusion and inner struggle upon realising she is attracted to women as well as men, and I found that to be well-written and ringing with truth. I’d be interested to know if the author is bi. After finishing the book, I started to think that maybe there was a bit of the old ‘women abused by men become lesbians’ trope, but while reading it didn’t seem like that. Mary and Anne seek comfort in each other, but they are also attracted to each other well before anything bad happens.
Okay, on to the positives. I love that this novel exists. F/F Anne Bonny fanfic being published for real is awesome! I’ve seen some complaints that there isn’t a lot of actual piracy in this book, but I actually found that quite refreshing – it was hardly sea battles all the time in real life. There’s space for the political side of piracy: the downtime, the boredom, the planning, the democracy of the crew, the question of whether to take the law’s pardon or continue as outlaws. There’s a lot of exploration of what it means to be free, and whether piracy actually achieves that. I thought this was very well handled and interesting.
As I hope we’ve established on this blog, I am so very down for F/F romance becoming more popular. I loved the way that Mary and Anne instantly had a spark, but that their relationship was a deeply emotional and caring one. This isn’t insta-love, it’s a slow realisation that someone else can end up becoming the centre of your world. I wish this slow pace of romance was more of a trend for relationships of any orientation in YA. I also liked that Mary’s relationship with her male friend Nat was shown in flashbacks and the present day – none of this ‘gay now’ business.
Mary is a complex and confused character, but she is instantly likeable for her determination to survive. She’s a true Slytherin – deeply loyal to her chosen few and always pushing for the best. This isn’t my favourite version of Anne that I’ve ever seen – she’s a bit of a contradiction. Sometimes she’s kicking ass and taking names, and sometimes she’s weeping into a blanket. She does a fair bit of weeping. This is not really what I expected – I think she would have had to keep up her image to stand a chance on the ship. But I liked her fierceness being combined with the softness, and even in her weepy moments she still felt like she was ready to pull a knife on someone.
Jack is… not the Calico Jack I love. McNamara makes him something of the villain of the piece – not outright bad, but not a nice guy. I much prefer both Jack and Anne in other works (particularly Black Sails). I think a fair amount of people who read this will have seen Black Sails, if they’re interested in pirates, and so they may, like I did, find these versions a little bit strange and a lot less fun.
To sum up, then, this is a complex, fascinating novel. I found it utterly compelling, and I loved the romance. There are issues, as I think there will often be when trying to tell queer stories in a realistic historical setting, and it’s definitely not a rollicking, sea-shanty-singing, piratical adventure, so if you’re going into it expecting this, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you’re interested in a gorgeously written character study of an irrestible and plausible Mary Reade, then definitely check this out.
I’m going to go with three out of five cats, because while there was a lot I enjoyed, I don’t think this was quite perfect (I do like a little bit of rollicking in my piratical stories).