Maritime piracy during the age of exploration inspires a great deal of romantic, idealized fiction. But like the American wild west, the actual historical era can’t possibly contain all of the stories that have been written about the period. Veteran fantasy authors Stephen J. Sullivan and Jean Rabe decided to solve that problem by creating a whole universe of sailing heroes called the Blue Kingdoms, and ended up submitting their creation for the Wizards of the Coast “Fantasy Setting Search” competition. They weren’t discouraged when Eberron was chosen as the new Dungeons and Dragons game world, so now Blue Kingdoms lives and breathes in the form of four short story anthologies. Blue Kingdoms: Buxom Buccaneers leaps off the shelf fully formed as a pleasant, diverting page-turner. The book is intended for a general adult audience, and while there’s fantasy violence and an amount of innuendo it’s not inappropriate for young adult readers.
One of the advantages of a fantasy setting is that historical accuracy can take a back seat to modern sensibilities regarding race and gender. So while the titular buccaneers of the anthology certainly don’t lack for prose sex appeal, the book is never juvenile or exploitative. In “Magic’s Price” by Kathleen Watness, the spell-casting skipper has lost a hand, but not in the way we imagine would usually happen to a pirate. Likewise in Jason Mical’s “Keva’s Six,” elves and dwarves stand in for whatever foreign peoples might be unwelcome at a frontier port. Every Blue Kingdoms book effectively takes the tropes of the pirate story and turns them on their bandanna-wrapped heads, and Buxom Buccaneers continues that tradition satisfyingly.
Easily the best story of the bunch of Sullivan’s own “Sisters in Arms,” a story of filial loyalty and female empowerment. Sullivan draws the reader into his sailing world subtly but insistently, and along the way the unusual gender of his fighting sailors ceases to be either a burden or a novelty. In a century where the word ‘feminist’ is no longer relevant, the best kind of fantasy fiction assigns roles without regard to sex, and Sullivan does that skillfully and convincingly.
The way that “Sisters in Arms” ends the book illustrates an ongoing problem with the whole series in that many of the short stories don’t spend enough time establishing the world for new readers. Even established fans of the series might have trouble following along with all the specialized dialogue and place names of the Blue Kingdoms, and without an existing tie-in or some other reference material, it’s easy to be distracted or lost. That’s only a minor complaint for what’s otherwise a satisfying read.
Blue Kingdoms: Buxom Buccaneers edited by Stephen J. Sullivan and Jean Rabe. Published 2008 by Walkabout Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9802086-5-8. 182 pages, softcover.
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