2014’s Serendipity’s Tide is the first volume in Shelby’s Across a Jade Sea trilogy. I am not quite sure how to categorize it. Secondary world historical adventure, perhaps, related to historicals as Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is related to futuristic science fiction. I can say I enjoyed reading Serendipity’s Tide.
Unconventional Batiya has always preferred engines and ships to fashion and society, the pursuits that her mother would have chosen for her. Happily for Batiya, even though she lives in a society with limited roles for women, she has family connections that let her follow her dreams. When the book opens, she is serving as an apprentice engineer to her uncle’s on the Empress Katronika,
On its way to the Indigo Islands, the Empress rescues a collection of castaways at sea. This laudable act of charity proves disastrous for the Empress. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to kill one of the castaways, a Chanali aristocrat named Chunru. A carelessly worded wireless message lets the villains know the job isn’t done; Chunru still lives.
In very short order, the Empress is attacked. The crew manages to fight off their attackers, but in the confusion, Batiya and Chunru are cast adrift in a lifeboat.
They are short of water, short on food, but plentifully provided with burning sunlight, hungry sharks, and rascally pirates determined to finish off the man they were hired to kill. Even if the pair manage to survive the dangers of the open sea, even if they evade the pirates, Chunru’s enemies have other plans and other weapons.
If on-going physical danger weren’t enough, another complication develops. Despite having just met, despite barriers of custom, culture, and nationality, despite the fact that Batiya has hitherto seen romance as beneath her, Batiya and Chunru fall in love.
And there’s something very important Chunru hasn’t told his new love about himself….
Even though Batiya is routinely sexually harassed and is nearly gang-raped by pirates at one point … even though Chunru comes closer to being disemboweled than is ideal … this was an oddly perky, upbeat book. Shelby elected to tell the story from Batiya’s point of view. Batiya is a determined woman who has managed to convince an extremely sexist society that she is engineer material, the Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu of her world. Mere danger isn’t going to stop her for long.
Shelby used Eastern Europe and East Asia, and in particular China, as inspiration without sticking too closely to her originals. The geography of this world is completely different from ours and the cultures are only reminiscent of real world cultures. The author has given her secondary world a healthy supply of prejudices, but she hasn’t handicapped the lead couple with anything even close to the unthinking, virulent racism the couple might encounter in our world. (I am not just talking about what would be considered acceptable commentary back in 1910, when our world was at the same technological level as Batiya’s.) That’s probably for the best, although I have to suspect Batiya and Chunru would handle their world’s Pia Kjærsgaards and Márton Gyöngyösis as easily as they do pirates and assassins.
I was a little sad Batiya didn’t get to do more engineering and not just for the obvious reasons. Batiya loves her engines almost as much as she loves Chunru. Watching her amidst her machines is a lot of fun. Unlike another plucky girl engineer, she seems to have been imagined by someone who has had personal experience with machinery or at least did her research, Verisimilitude supports characterization in a way that technobabble and vague references to inborn talents cannot.
This was an amusing little confection and my one quibble is that it’s clearly part of a long work in three parts, rather than being a trilogy of linked stand-alone novels. This volume serves to introduce the characters, to entangle them romantically (not something either Batiya or Chunru resist, to be sure) and to outline the situation into which Chunru has dragged Batiya. Readers who want the full story will need to read all three novels, which they can purchase here.