Fast Ships, Black Sails
Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (editors)
Night Shade Books: 2008
Until the Editors Vandermeer pubished Fast Ships, Black Sails, pirates had not truly penetrated into popular fiction the way they had back into film with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. Perhaps because of the movies, pirates are a subject of renewed interest. The editors touch upon this in their introduction.
At least part of the current fascination with pirates, including our own, has to be about freedom, frontiers, a yearing for adventure and a desire to explore exotic locales. pg 1
The Vandermeers may be right, because for what other reason are pirates so compulsively cool if not because, in a sense, pirates inhabit the frontiers of the ocean in the same way the American West was explored and mythologized by settlers, ranchers, and cowboys. It is that sense of freedom, lawlessness, and excitement that can only occur several paces beyond the fringe of civilization. Contained within Fast Ships, Black Sails are science fictional pirates, exploring not just the frontiers of our world, but the frontiers of space and new planets.
The anthology opens with "Boojum" from Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. "Boojum" sets the tone, in a way, for the anthology and in this one story, shows the range of what a pirate story can be. "Boojum" is a tale set on the Lavinia Whatley, a "ship" which is actually a living creature which travels through space and engages in piracy against other "vessels". At its heart is the character of Black Alice Bradley, one of the ship's engineers who truly loves the Lavinia Whatley. Though this is, initially, a simple story of a raid gone bad, "Boojum" becomes more when we learn more of the Lavinia Whatley through the eyes of Black Alice. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's skill at telling the story and their command of language is outstanding. There may not have been a better choice to open Fast Ships, Black Sails than "Boojum".
It goes without saying that the Editors Vandermeer selected the stories they deemed "the best", and that across the board they are likely satisfied with the lineup of stories in Fast Ships, Black Sails. Tastes vary, and any review is always going to rely on the taste of the reviewer and on how the reviewer experiences fiction. With any luck, the taste of the reviewer will line up with a wide range of readers and inform readers as to the relative merits and quality of a given work.
When I write that the standout stories from Fast Ships, Black Sails come from Justin Howe, Carrie Vaughn, Brendan Connell, Rachel Swirsky, and Jayme Lynn Blaschke it is with the full understanding that others will prefer the Naomi Novik, Steve Aylett, and Garth Nix. In fact, Jonathan Strahan has selected the Garth Nix story "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe" for inclusion in his forthcoming anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three.
With all that said, Fast Ships, Black Sails is, with very little question about it, an outstanding anthology. There really are stories for everyone. As the editors mention at the end of their introduction,
Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana" is an absurd list of journal entries about a particular voyage and the mishaps that occured on said voyage. In short doses and when thinking about it, the story is funny. But it is not a story readers will engage with. Or, it is not a story I could engage with. I, as a reader and reviewer, can recognize why some will like this story and why the editors selected the story, but it isn't one of the best of the anthology.
Within these pages you'll find villains, all right, black-hearted and gold-hearted both. You'll find captains in love with mermaids. You'll find double-dealing, double-crossing, and double-identities....pirates serious or humorous, in the past, the present, or the future... pg 2
"The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail" from Rachel Swirsky is one of the standout stories in Fast Ships, Black Sails. Anyone who has read Swirsky in the past should not be surprised by this fact. This is a serious pirate story featuring rats and eventually a cat.
Cracked Mack the Lack had been the last of their dastardly crew. Sully'd found him that morning, gone tail over snout in the stern. Arsenic done him in. Mack had a taste for it, reminded him of that crack in the wall called home when papa took the boys out of a morning to learn their way in the world: how to tweak a cat's whiskers and pry cheese from between spring-loaded jaws. Now Mack was gone, wrapped in a spider web shroud to decay in his watery grave.
Awesome. Simply awesome. A full collection of stories from Rachel Swirsky would be well worth the price of admission. Lacking that, this story in Fast Ships, Black Sails will have to do for now. This may be the best story in the anthology.
There is much good in Fast Ships, Black Sails and truly nothing bad. While not all stories come anywhere close to living up to the gold standard set by Rachel Swirsky or the Elizabeth Bear / Sarah Monette tale, there are no true clunkers in the anthology. If you like pirates or you just think that some pirate stories could be interesting, Fast Ships, Black Sails is a great anthology, one of the year's best and chock full of original fiction.
Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.