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TOP SHELF: Young woman swashbuckles through time

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Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2012 8:24 am

Steel is the latest young-adult novel from New York Times best-selling author Carrie Vaughn, best known for her urban fantasy series about Kitty, a werewolf DJ. An accomplished balance of action, personal discovery and historical exploration, Steel is a perfect read for teens who love fantasy, pirates and strong female protagonists.

A teenage fencing prodigy with Olympic ambitions, Jill Archer loses her chance to be in the Junior World Championships by mere seconds. Though she’d rather mope, her parents drag her off on a family vacation to the Caribbean. There she discovers the rusted tip of an old pirate sword buried in the sand, a shard of metal that seems to hold magical secrets. When she pockets it, she sets off a chain of events that lands her nearly three hundred centuries in the past. She soon finds herself joining the crew of the Diana, a pirate ship captained by Marjory Cooper, who is on a Moby Dick-like quest to destroy her former skipper, the ruthless Edmund Blane. She recognizes the bit of metal as the tip of Blane’s mighty sword, created in a horrifying rite of black magic. Cooper uses it to track her nemesis down, avoiding the Royal Navy all the way. But to defeat Blane, she’ll need Jill’s help… if the teen can only overcome her hesitancy at the prospect of defeat.

Vaughn artfully manages the task of balancing a realistic depiction of pirate life and keeping the book appropriate for a young-adult audience. Jill luckily falls in with one of the more humane pirates: Cooper frees a group of enslaved Africans from the ship transporting them, taking them to Jamaica to be protected by Grandy Nanny (an historical figure now considered a national hero). The “articles” or code of conduct of the Diana echo the norms of modern capitalist democracies, and Cooper makes it clear to her crew that Jill is to be respected (if given all the rookie chores they can dredge up). Jill herself is a nicely drawn character who spends the first half of the book being gradually drawn into life at sea before coming into her own as a fencer and a woman toward the end. The young man entrusted with showing her the ropes is a spirited mulatto named Henry, and the friendship that grows between the two, while tinged with romantic tension, never devolves into the smitten dependence with which too many YA authors saddle their heroines. Jill is a brave, confident young woman who makes her own decisions and lives with the consequences. I came away from the book believing her a great role model for my own daughters.

David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him

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