6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Steel by Carrie Vaughn

Title: Steel

Author: Carrie Vaughn

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Young Adult

Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: March 2011
Hardcover: 304 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

It was a slender length of rusted steel, tapered to a point at one end and jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.

This was the tip of a rapier.

Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought in dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade. When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure.

The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship. Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew. But a pirate’s life is bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home—one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.

Time travel, swordplay, and romance combine in an original high-seas adventure from New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.

How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher

Why did I read this book: I’ve read and enjoyed Carrie Vaughn’s Urban Fantasy (although I haven’t read any of the recent entries) series, and I have a thing for pirates. Especially recently (what with my Kenneth Oppel love, and the fact that The Goonies has been on television nonstop for the past week). I took all this as a sign to pick up Carrie Vaughn’s new standalone YA novel. I mean, come on! Swashbuckling, time traveling, and adventure? What’s not to love?


Steel is the story of sixteen year old Jill – an elite young athlete that aspires to become one of the best fencers in the world. Having lost her last bout at nationals, settling for what she thinks is a pitiful and meaningless fourth place, Jill is in a sour mood. Though her family is vacationing in the gorgeous Bahamas, Jill cannot find any pleasure in the impeccable white sand beaches or azure tropical waters. When Jill decides to go for a walk to clear her mind, trying to shake the feelings of failure and angst that have basically consumed her universe [*insert melodramatic pose*] she stumbles across six inches of corroded steel in the sand. Curious, Jill picks up the broken rod and – since she’s a fencer – she realizes that this must once have been part of a rapier. Maybe even a pirate rapier. Unwilling to part with her surprising bounty, Jill slides the steel shard into her pocket and rejoins her family for the next group outing on a tourboat. When the boat runs into rough weather, though, Jill is pitched overboard, broken rapier still in her pocket. When she breaks the surface of the turbulent seas, however, she finds herself in a world that is both familiar and completely alien. She is still in the warm Caribbean waters off the Bahamas…but in the 18th century.

Fished out of the sea by honest-to-goodness pirates, and taken as prisoner on board the Diana, Jill tries to fight for her freedom – but for all her skill with a bated blade in the fencing salle, she realizes a full steel rapier and fighting to kill is an entirely different skill. Jill is given two options by the ship’s captain, the fearsome Pirate Queen Marjorie Cooper: either she sign the Diana‘s articles and become a member of the crew, or be thrown in the brig (or perhaps overboard). And although she doesn’t realize it, the steel rapier shard that lies at the root of Jill’s time traveling adventure is also connected inextricably to the Diana and her fearless Captain Cooper – the piece of steel mysteriously points and guides the Diana across the seas towards another captain and another ship. Hundreds of years from home, frightened and alone, Jill chooses life on the pirate ship, and so her adventure to return to her time begins.

I really wanted to love Steel – and there are many things about the novel that I liked. I actually appreciated the fact that Jill is a flat-out, unabashed brat. She’s entitled and selfish and completely self-absorbed; on a beautiful vacation with her family in an exotic location, Jill can’t even muster up enough sympathy to put on a swimsuit or see any beauty in the world around her, so willfully mired in her own malaise and apathy is she. For the majority of the novel, this attitude doesn’t change. Jill remains faithfully whiny until having to live the hard life of a pirate, scrubbing decks and doing backbreaking tasks and earning whatever measly food she can – at which point she realizes how good she had it with her family before, and she grows as a character because of it. That’s a cool realization, although the danger with this type of storyline is the fact that Jill is, at least for me, an incredibly grating character (and that’s not always so good in a book heroine that one is supposed to get behind and root for, especially in an action setting). I also loved that the “romance” so beefed up in the synopsis, on the front and back covers of the book was a minor footnote, if you can even call it a romance.

Most of all, the biggest selling points for Steel (for me) were the gritty details of life on a real life pirate ship, how pirate politics work, and of course, the integration of female captains. In the Author’s Note included in the back of the book (and which you can read online), Carrie Vaughn acknowledges that while there were female pirates like Anne Bonney and Mary Reade, there were likely other female pirates in the Caribbean and perhaps even female pirate captains[1. In the note, Ms. Vaughn does reference that in Asia, female pirate captains, like Ching Shih (who made a brief appearance in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie), were a reality. And, like Ms. Vaughn, I’d also like to think that captains like Marjorie Cooper existed beyond the realm of fiction, too.] The sense of pirate history in Steel is similarly well done, and everything from the gritty details of scraping a ship’s hull to the endless repetition of scrubbing the deck is written beautifully.

Of course, Steel is a book that has a lot of fighting and swordplay, as the cover, title and chapter headings all portend. Fencing is integral to the plot, and the fight scenes are excellently scripted, with Jill’s inner emotions and turmoil playing a big part of each of her interactions. Even though Jill is a world-class athlete on the junior level, I loved that she is not made into some kind of undefeatable badass in the book. She’s good with a practice blade and fighting for touches, but, as Jill soon discovers, there’s a huge difference between fighting for competition and fighting for one’s life.

While these facets of the book were certainly enjoyable (or, in the case of Jill’s annoying characterization, at least something I could appreciate), there were also a number of things I did not like about the book. The most glaring point was how very convenient and sanitized the story was. I imagine that a soft, whiny, comparatively scantily-clad and fresh faced little girl like Jill would have faced a much different fate on any other pirate ship in the Caribbean besides the Diana (of COURSE she ends up picked up by the only ship with a female captain, who also happens to be kindhearted and frees slaves and such). Also, for all that Steel is supposed to be about the REAL Pirates of the Caribbean, there are a whole lot of similarities to the film going on. Captain Cooper has taken possession of Jill’s steel shard, which mysteriously always points to the location of Captain Blane and his ship (compare this to Captain Jack Sparrow and his compass that points to the Black Pearl in the first film). Turns out, Cooper was betrayed and marooned by Blane in the past (compare this to Jack Sparrow being betrayed and marooned by Barbosa). There’s even a trip to Jamaica, involvement of black magic, the whole nine yards. Although it turns out that Cooper’s beef with Blane is markedly different than the Pirates film, the supernatural element of the story (involving black magic and sacrifice and Evil Pirate Emperor Schemes) was kind of cheesy and felt out of place with the rest of the more grounded and well-described, researched, and realized detail of Steel. But that’s just me.

All these criticisms on the table, I did end up enjoying the book, despite my skepticism and certain frustrations. The character revelations at the end of Steel are well done, and I think the book comes to a fitting, well-executed conclusion. I guess my lingering impression of Steel is this: ultimately, the book felt like a montage of good scenes and fascinating, well-researched facts that captured my interest, but the actual story left me sorely wanting. I still enjoyed Steel well enough, though I do wish these disparate elements could have been tied together in a more appealing way.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:

Jill started walking.

The beach wasn’t crowded, but it wasn’t empty, which she would have preferred. Lots of families seemed to be on vacation, as well as couples of every age. People, greasy with sunscreen, lay on towels and baked on the sand. Some played volleyball. Some, like her, walked barefoot on wet sand, at the edge of where the waves reached. She kept going, past the people, to where the more attractive, sandy portion of the beach narrowed, and palm trees grew almost to the water. Voices fell away, drowned out by the sound of waves. She kept walking.

She could understand how someone could lose herself, walking along a beach. It was meditative: the roll of the waves, the repetitive movement of water and patterns of froth that traveled back and forth along the sand were constant, along with the noise — the rush, splash, echo of always-moving water. Beautiful, entrancing. It never changed — but at the same time the pattern the breaking waves made was always different, and she could just keep watching it. The waves, the surf, and the ocean that went on to a flat horizon.

Walking in sand was a lot of work. Her feet dug in, slipping a little with every step. Her legs had to push harder. This was a good workout. Then again, she was probably moving faster than she needed to. You were supposed to just stroll along a beach, not march. She didn’t care. She didn’t mind sweating.

She could just keep walking, never go back. She could turn into a beach bum and never make another decision about what to do next. The idea sounded enticing.

When her bare toe scuffed against something hard in the sand, she stopped. It was too heavy to be a shell. Maybe a stone. She knelt and brushed the sand away, feeling for the object her foot had discovered.

It was a slender length of rusted steel, flat, about six inches long and a half an inch wide. It tapered to a point at one end and was jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.

This was the tip of a rapier, the solid shape of a real sword. The original source of the modern, flimsy weapons she fenced with. Every fencing book she’d ever seen had a picture of rapiers like that, to show where the sport came from. This tip must have broken off and might have been rusting in the ocean for centuries, waves pushing it along the sandy bottom until it washed up here. Dark brown flakes came off in her hand. The edges were dull enough that she ran her finger along them without harm — though her skin tingled when she thought about what the piece of steel represented. Was it a pirate sword? Had it broken in a duel? In a battle? Maybe it had fallen from a ship. Looking around, she studied the sand as if the rest of the sword might be lying nearby. She imagined a long, powerful rapier with an intricate swept hilt, like something from a museum or a movie. An Errol Flynn movie. But that was stupid. The tip had broken, and it would have washed away from the rest of the sword a long time ago.

You can read the full excerpt, along with the first 60 pages of Steel online HERE, or by using Harper’s Browse Inside widget below:

Rating: 6 – Good

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  • Kate @ Candlemark
    March 10, 2011 at 7:08 am

    I may have to pick this up…I’ve gone between sport fencing and “practical” fencing (AKA Western martial arts) for years, and I’d love to see someone competently handle the differences between modern sport fencing and actual FIGHTING in a book…

  • KMont
    March 10, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Hmmmmm… Um. Well, my eyes lit up when I saw the cover. I’d forgotten about this book, but remembered just now that it was a book that sounded interesting. I think what’s turning me off most is that it mirrors the Pirates of the Caribbean movie so much. Maybe if my family and I hadn’t watched that series to death I’d feel differently, but I’m not too keen on this book being that similar.

    On the other hand, the premise sounds very interesting and maybe even refreshingly different from the ever popular mysterious supernatural boy meets girl YAs that are around every corner. Kudos for that at least.

  • April (Books&Wine)
    March 10, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I have this, but have been putting it off. BUT OMG you said Goonies and my head was like swivel-whattt. And well, okay, I like pain in the ass characters who own being a pain in the ass.

    SO YAY, I am much more excited about STEEL!!

  • Jodie
    March 12, 2011 at 6:14 am

    ‘The most glaring point was how very convenient and sanitized the story was. I imagine that a soft, whiny, comparatively scantily-clad and fresh faced little girl like Jill would have faced a much different fate on any other pirate ship in the Caribbean besides the Diana (of COURSE she ends up picked up by the only ship with a female captain, who also happens to be kindhearted and frees slaves and such).’

    Do you think that if we had more stories that represented diverse tales about ladies being pirates then this kind of thing might seem less like a problem and more like just one road for an author writing female pirates to take?

    Also I have to reccomend ‘The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle’ by Avi if you haven’t read it and ‘The Pirate Queen’ by Diana Norman (who passed away quite recently). Everyone should love novels of ladies sailing and pirating!

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  • David
    August 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    This book sucks….don’t read it…I almost ripped my eyeballs out of my head.

  • Anonymous
    July 9, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I lpved the book. I can see how/why jill may act the way she does and it has a great story line.

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