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Nearly Honorable, Fairly Wonderful

When you love to read, and love to read widely, it’s easy to get caught in the whirlpool of all the things out there to read. It’s great to have so many things to pick from, but it also means that excellent books can fall through the cracks. Not to mention the sadness of a book sounding wonderful and then not following through…

All of which is to say: Caroline Carlson’s Magic Marks The Spot is one you may not have run across before and need in your life as soon as possible.

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Technically a “children’s” book (the inside cover claims it’s for ages 8-12) this is one I recommend to anyone, especially any woman, looking for a fun and smart story about girls going after what they want. I think about Carlson’s book the same way I think about Diana Wynne Jones’ – they may end up shelved in a children’s department, but readers of any age are going to love them.

Magic Marks The Spot was originally released in September 2013. I got hooked by the cover and the concept because SPUNKY GIRL PIRATE. I soon discovered it went beyond just being a lighthearted adventure, turning into a story with something to say about being female, and lots to celebrate.

Hilary Westfield is the daughter of an Admiral in the Augusta Royal Navy and wants nothing more than a life of piracy on the high seas. Unfortunately, both her family and the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuse to believe girls are capable of such things, and she ends up at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies. Hilary, however, will not be thwarted.

She answers an advertisement calling for pirates, which sends her off on adventure with her pet talking gargoyle. Yes, there’s a talking gargoyle, and he’s about as charming as you can imagine.

Many books for young readers feature one-sided adult characters but Carlson does something more. While Miss Pimm, owner of the finishing school, is originally presented as nothing but a roadblock to what Hilary wants, the details we learn about the older woman’s life make her both fascinating and important to the plot. We also meet Hilary’s governess Miss Greyson who has some secrets of her own.

Most chapters include excerpts from the world’s newspaper, the Augusta Scuttlebutt, along with letters between various characters that fill in the back story and give us hints as to a mystery involving the world’s recent depletion of magic. As we piece together the truth about what’s going on, we also get some insight into the way class prejudices in Augusta have been contributing to the problem.

There’s one final way in which Carlson’s novel sets itself apart, especially considering the intended audience. While Hilary wants to be a pirate, and watching her make that happen is a treat, not every female character is as enthralled by the piratical lifestyle; the novel gives those choices equal validation. For example, Hilary’s best friend Claire prefers the life offered by Miss Pimm’s and High Society. They both respect each other’s choices and neither is ever cast as weaker than the other. As long as the girls are making the choices that are true to themselves, they’re doing the right thing. I only wish more “adult” books could grasp this idea.

One piece of feminism which often gets warped into something less helpful is the idea of “strong women” having to take on traditionally male roles. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – even if you limit yourself to pirates you get excellent real-life examples such as Grace O’Malley and Sadie the Goat (Google and be fascinated!) However, what makes a woman or girl strong (whether fictional or not) is the ability to stay true to herself, however that manifests. And what happens when two or more women rely on what makes them personally powerful, while also working together? It’s even better, as we see in this book.

In the end, that’s my favorite part of Magic Marks the Spot; a young person who reads this book is going to get an early introduction to the concept, and someone a little older will get a reminder.

Magic Marks the Spot was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and also received notices from the Junior Library Guild and Book Expo America. The sequel, The Terror of the Southlands was released September 2014 and book three, The Buccaneers’ Code will be out this coming September according to Goodreads. I grabbed book 2 the week it came out, and the third is a must read when it arrives.

So read Hilary’s adventures on your own, then share them with the younger readers in your life. Feminist piratical adventures for all!

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