Fiction Reviews

The Sky Pirates

(2014) Leisel Schwarz, Del Ray, £8.99, pbk, 398pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95073-6


This is the third book in Leisel Schwartz’s 'Chronicles of Light and Shadow 'series, so its plot, setting and characters will be familiar to many. Since I reviewed the first one two years ago she has, apparently, become ‘the high-priestess of steampunk’ at least according to The Independent, which will come as an unwelcome surprise to Cherie Priest. On this showing, though, she should not be too concerned.

The novel continues the adventures of Elle Chance, a posh and slightly accident prone airship pilot who in previous novels became the ‘Oracle’, which rather than being a person who knows stuff (she does not) is the person who acts as a bridge between the world of Shadow and the world of Light. Also included are various sky pirates (hence the name), an ex-husband to track down, an old ally turned mean and powerful and a rather large two-headed dog with murderous intent.

Elle’s ship, the Water Lily is attacked and her friend, Gertrude, killed, leaving behind a treasure map. For some reason Elle decides to make her peace with the captain of the ship who attacked her, Dashwood, and becomes part of his crew. Together they hunt for the treasure, though Elle’s motives are information: she wants to find a way to rescue her husband from his permanently wraith-like state in the Shadow Realm. This leads to numerous scrapes, a bit of steaminess, pith helmets (yes, really) and lots of pirates.

There is plenty of action here – it starts with an action sequence as Elle gets away from desert raiders and then uses her magic Oracle powers to whip up a deadly sandstorm in order to rescue some other people. That's pattern for the book, and the action leads Elle and Dashwood to the jungles of Cambodia and some difficult decisions. There are plenty of unresolved plot threads, too, so a sequel seems inevitable.

Somewhere along the way between the refreshing first novel and this third instalment, though, something seems to have gone missing. The writing flows as easily as before – crisp and clear with some quirky characters and intriguing plot twists – but it is all too… jaunty. All a bit jolly hockey sticks. All a bit ‘let’s have tea.’ In short, there is no tension. That did not really strike me until Elle’s reaction to losing her friend to the attack by Dashwood very quickly becomes an exciting new adventure working for Dashwood as a pirate. That, coupled with her very convenient Oracle superpowers and her easy diversion from her apparent mission to save her husband Marsh in order to get friendly with Dashwood (who she presumably forgot had been responsible for her friend’s death), made this a rather flat read. For all its action, it had no tension.

So too light hearted for me, I am afraid, without being either genuinely original or amusing. I could not find any characters to relate to, nor a storyline that made much sense. We didn’t see much of the world of Shadow, which was a shame because that might have been fresh and weird, and the bad guys seemed to change according to the scene. But, fundamentally, Elle does not seem to care much for anything so neither do I. It’s just a novel where stuff happens. Still, if steampunk’s your thing you might like this. Go back to the first book in the series, though: much better, and that at least adds some context to this one.

Mark Bilsborough

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