Carrie Vaughn’s 2012 Steel is a standalone young-adult time travel story.
Jill Archer comes in fourth in her fencing tournament. Third would have earned her a bronze medal and a place in the Junior World Fencing Championships. Fourth gets her nothing.
A family vacation near Nassau should help her get over the setback. But a chance discovery of the broken tip of a rapier, lost to the sea centuries ago, gives her a ticket to an entirely different sort of vacation. Clutching the fragment she has rescued from the water, she falls overboard in the 21st century. She is hauled out of the water in the golden age of piracy.
Luckily for Jill, Captain Marjory Cooper’s crew are a comparatively decent lot. Jill’s life after she is fished from the sea isn’t a descent into horror. Still, there is not a lot of room for charity in a pirate’s life. Given the choice between signing on as a pirate and spending who knows how long as their prisoner, Jill signs on.
Her skill with a sword is proven early, as is her complete inexperience with real-life combat when lives are on the line. Accordingly, Jill’s early experience of the pirate life focuses not on boarding actions and Basil Rathbone-esque duels, but on endless deck-scrubbing, rope-mending, sail-hauling, etcetera.
Why was Jill was dragged back through time? That fragment of rapier belongs to notorious pirate Blane, who, dissatisfied with mundane power, turned to the dark arts to make a magic sword. Cooper broke the sword and cast it into the sea. It seems that Blane has recovered most of his sword. His efforts to recover the missing piece of his sword have drawn Jill along with it.
Blane is a determined man. He will have his fragment back. If Jill gets in the way? Well, she’ll need better than fourth-place fencing skills to survive.
The downside of doubling back in an author’s backlist is that they may have grown in the intervening time. It’s not that this isn’t as engaging as Bannerless . It’s that Bannerless is more engaging because Vaughn was a better writer by the time she got to it.
This was a fairly straightforward account of pirate life as seen by a modern girl, if somewhat tidied up. Vaughn lands her protagonist on a female-run ship that isn’t going to use her as a sex toy before tossing her overboard. There are some very bad pirates out there, as hinted by the offences listed in the ship’s articles — no need for rules against crimes nobody commits — but Cooper’s crew for the most part limit themselves to robbing and occasionally killing strangers, not people whose names they know.
Some readers may be astounded at the revelation that pirate queens like Cooper existed. Vaughn helpfully name checks historical pirate queens like Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Jill’s return to her home time is by no means ensured, and unlike, oh, John Carter, she doesn’t arrive in olden times armed with skills and abilities far superior to those around her; survival is therefore not guaranteed. Jill is an engaging character, adaptable enough to survive the age of piracy without being transformed by its less savoury aspects1. Readers will therefore care how matters play out.
1: It helps that the pirates with whom she falls in are the sort who also object to rape and slavery. Otherwise matters might have been awkward.
That said, I’d be curious to see a follow-up exploring how Jill’s experiences have changed her. Yes, her fencing skills have Improved. That’s not so interesting. But what would be fascinating would be tracking what kill-or-be-killed has done to her.