Pros: Gorgeous world-building; action-packed plot; fantastic characters
Cons: Slow start
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Black Ship is the second book in Diana Pharaoh Francis’s Crosspointe world, and as usual I find myself diving headlong into a series mid-stream thanks to the vagaries of reviewing. I did find it a little tough to follow along with the world at first due to this, and wish I’d read the first book first, but it didn’t take too much time to catch up. Still, I recommend reading The Cipher first if you can.
Welcome to Crosspointe, the hub of the Inland Sea, where gold runs like water, and the balance of politics shifts uneasily between the monarchy, the majicars, and the Merchants’ Guild—a land where dangerous majick courses through the dark waters.
Sylbrac is a member of the Pilot’s Guild: he possesses the rare magical ability to navigate the deadly seas with the aid of a Compass. His life is ruined in one terrible instant when an enemy in the Guild bans him from sailing. He finds that there’s more going on than the obvious, however, and is pressed into service on a black ship—an illegal vessel transporting unknown goods, crewed by a mutinous bunch of outcasts and misfits, and captained by a madman. Add in a saboteur and Sylbrac’s mysteriously failing health, as well as a clash with vicious barbarians who might be more than they seem, and you’re set to take one wild sea-faring ride. Soon even Sylbrac has to wonder whether his life is truly ending, or just beginning.
I had trouble getting into The Black Ship at first, but it turned out to be wholly worth that slow start. Part of that was learning the world, since I hadn’t read the first book, and part of it was dealing with a main character who spent some of his initial time being rather unlikable. This was definitely only a minor hiccup, however!
Once Sylbrac is kidnapped (or “crimped”) to serve aboard the black ship, the tale immediately takes off and sings with humor, tension, and character. I’m not particularly entranced by tales of sailing, yet Diana makes this one so fraught with danger and action that I was absolutely glued to the pages. The dangers of the seas on this world are extreme, and it’ll take a skilled (if fractious) crew, a fantastic ship, some major majick, and a first-rate Pilot and captain to pull off the journey. If only they can learn to work together long enough to avoid killing each other…
As wonderful as the action is, the interactions between the characters are even better. Sylbrac quickly realizes that the only way he’ll get to keep being a Pilot is to keep his new ship, forced on him or no, and that means forcing the crew to gel. How better to unite them than by uniting them in anger against him, particularly since he’s so good at pissing everyone around him off? Needless to say, this results in plenty of both humor AND danger for everyone involved.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the world-building is fascinating! I won’t go into it too much, so as to avoid giving plot points away. Suffice it to say that Diana gets into how Pilots become Pilots, how majicars become majicars, and what some of the other civilizations are up to, all as part of the heady, action-packed plot.
[Just as a note, there’s some amount of dark and/or adult material in here. Nothing terribly explicit, but this isn’t a kids’ fantasy novel.]