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Review: Black Sails to Sunward – Sheila Jenné

Black Sails to Sunward - Sheila Jenne

Genre: Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Romance Subplot

Reviewer: Beáta

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About The Book

In a world of frock coats, solar sails, and rigid class boundaries, Lucy joins the Martian Imperial Navy as a midshipman.

Mars and Earth are at war, and Lucy hopes for quick promotion. But when she arrives aboard ship, she finds harsh officers and a crew on the verge of mutiny. And worse: her former friend, Moira—a commoner and a radical—is a member of the crew.

It’s clear where Lucy’s duty lies. As an officer and a gentlewoman, she has to quell the crew’s rebellion and preserve her ship for the fight against Earth. But soon, she’ll have to make a decision between all she’s been taught to believe and the injustice she can see with her own eyes.

The Review

Black Sails to Sunward presents us with a future where Mars and Venus have both been colonized, and there is a tense trade relationship between the three planets which breaks the day that Lucy Prescott-Chin, impoverished heiress of a noble Martian family, fails to secure an engagement that would have helped her out of her financial troubles.

Instead, she takes what appears to be the only option left to her, and joins the space navy in its newly-declared war against Earth. Her first trip involves not only learning how to function in a very different environment to the one she grew up with, but also confrontations with injustice within the military. She also has to deal with the fact that her former best friend Moira is on the same ship as she is although, not being noble, is ranked far below her. When Moira takes the first chance she gets to desert the army and join space pirates, Lucy is thrown into a true whirlwind of conflicting moralities and loyalties.

This was a very good book. There are multiple reasons for that, but the big two are the world-building and the moral complexity.

Mars’ imperial system is clearly inspired by the one we had here on Earth in the 17th century, while Earth remains hyper capitalist. This leads to a natural tension between ideologies, and also the interesting question of what a traditional aristocratic system would look like in space. Also borrowed from history are the brutal treatment of the people working on the ships and the legal permission to basically kidnap them.

At the same time, Mars is more inclusive than Earth: women play an active role in their society, and queer people are completely normalized. What is not normalized is relationships between different social classes, which is where Lucy’s and Moira’s relationship troubles come from.

The moral complexity stems from a situation where there seems to be no right answer: Mars has an imperfect social system, but the capitalist Earth is at least as bad. Fighting the pirate take over of the ship would be Lucy’s moral duty, except that it would mean turning against the love of her life. Aiding the pirates, however, would be treason against a planet that she loves, and against her family, too. No wonder she spends so much of the book undecided.

The lesbian romance is nice and integral to the story. But it doesn’t take over the plot – the story is more science fiction than romance.

I had a great time with this book, and am really looking forward to reading the next one.

Black Sails to Sunward is the first part in Jenné’s “Imperial Mars” series, but it can be read as a stand-alone. The second book, The Sea of Clouds, is expected to be out on August 16th, 2024.

The Reviewer

Beáta Fülöp is an aspiring filmmaker and writer. She identifies as aromantic and asexual, and has an autistic Special Interest in the representation of minorities. One day, she will use this knowledge in her own stories. Until then, she is happy to sit here and give her opinion on other people’s hard work. 

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