Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade

by Miriam McNamara

Available as: hardcover, Kindle edition, ebook
Pages: 336
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Expected publication date: June 19, 2018
Suggested tags: young adult, historical fiction, LGBTQ, pirates

From Goodreads:
"A swashbuckling, smart novel based on the true story of a girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to sail with the infamous pirates Anne Bonny and Calico Jack.

There’s no place for a girl in Mary’s world. Not in the home of her mother, desperately drunk and poor. Not in the household of her wealthy granny, where a girl could never be named an heir. And certainly not in the arms of Nat, her childhood love who never knew her for who she was. As a hired sailor aboard a Caribbean merchant ship, Mary’s profession—and her safety—depend on her ability to disguise the fact that she’s a girl.

Leastways, that’s what she thinks is true. But then pirates attack the ship, and right in the middle of the swashbuckling crowd of bloodthirsty pirates, Mary spots something she never could have imagined: a girl pirate. The sight of a girl standing unafraid upon the deck, gun and sword in hand, changes everything. In a split-second decision, Mary turns her gun on her own captain and earns herself a spot among the pirates’ crew.

For the first time, Mary has a shot at freedom. But imagining living life as her true self is easier, it seems, than actually doing it. And when Mary finds herself falling for the captain’s mistress, she risks everything—her childhood love, her place among the crew, and even her life.

I had high hopes for this one. I mean, when the synopsis promises me a "swashbuckling, smart novel" about queer lady pirates, how do you expect me to not prepare myself for a knock-my-striped-pirate-stockings-off read?? Unfortunately, it just didn't deliver for me. It's basically a romance, with very little swashbuckling and not a whole lot of anything else going on either. And that makes my pirate stockings sad.

Mary has been disguising herself as a boy for most of her life, pretending to be her brother Mark since his death (at her alcoholic mother's insistence) so that she could inherit her grandmother's riches. No one but her mother knows her secret - not even her best friend (/her secret crush) Nat, who shares her dream of escaping their poor and rather terrible lives by sailing the high seas together.

The story is told in alternating timelines between Mary's present and her past, so without revealing too much of her past which is revealed as the story goes on, let's skip ahead to the part where she has made her way onto the high seas, but her ship is overtaken by pirates and she sees - gasp! - a lady pirate standing with the pirate captain, looking strong and beautiful and awesome. Mary shoots her ship's not-so-nice captain in hopes of gaining the pirates' favor. It works, and she's invited to become one of them. She becomes involved in their lifestyle, involved in their politics, and involved with the captain's mistress, Anne Bonny, the one she had admired when they took over her ship. She ends up on an island in the Caribbean with the pirates, and who should she meet there but Nat... So now she has to decide between Anne and Nat, between continuing to be "Mark" or becoming "Mary" once again...

What I liked: 
I thought telling Mary's story in alternating timelines between her past and present was a great way to write this one. As some other reviewers have mentioned, it gets a little iffy towards the end when the past catches up to where the book began and it feels a little repetitive, but otherwise I thought it was well done. I had no trouble following along as the timelines switched back and forth, and it seemed to reveal key moments from her past at just the right times.

I am a cis person, so my perspective on this may not be worth much, but I thought the exploration of Mary's thoughts and feelings on whether to continue to be Mark or whether to become Mary again, whether to dress in "boy's" clothes (pants) or "girl's" clothes (dresses) was handled pretty well. She goes back and forth, feeling pressured by friends/society/religion to act and dress like a girl... but she seems to feel more comfortable and more herself when she's Mark, or at least wearing her "Mark" outfit... but could she be "Mary" and still wear "Mark" clothes?...... I felt like I had a good peek into her head about it all, anyway.

What I didn't:
The characters. Not a "didn't like" so much as a strong meh. There was no one that I really liked or disliked. They were all just... there... going about their business. I didn't feel particularly connected to any of them. Even Anne, who I expected to really like, came off as whiny and immature and, well, kind of annoying. So that was super disappointing.

The plot. "Swashbuckling," says the synopsis?? There is swashbuckling for about the first 10% of this, and then THAT'S IT. The rest is pirates talking about whether or not to keep pirating, sitting on one island discussing this, and then sitting around on another island later. ... I'm sorry, but personally, I need a bit more "swashbuckling" going on in a book for it to be sold as a "swashbuckling" novel.

Speaking of the plot, there are so many coincidences that I had a hard time accepting. The first one I was like, okaaaaay, I guess I can accept that the stars could align -just so- to make this one happen: (SPOILER - highlight to read: Nat *just happens* to be the one who attacks her on the beach as all the pirates are being raided. Alllll those raiders vs. alllll those pirates, and he somehow finds Mary on the beach?? *sigh* ok, I guess...) But then, Mary meets up with literally almost everyone from her past on the second island. Whoa, really?? All the islands in the Caribbean and they all happen to converge on this one at the same time? ... I don't know. Maybe it's just me. I just... argh, I have a hard time when things happen really conveniently for maximum dramatic effect.

And yeah, this should be billed as a romance rather than a swashbuckler, but even then, the romance was not my favorite. Or I should say, Mary was not my favorite in the romance department. She is totally into her relationship with one partner, lots of physical attraction and is-it-getting-hot-in-here-or-is-it-just-me, and then jealousy and hurt feelings when that partner pays attention to someone else, so like ok, she must be really into this person... But then as soon as she decides she's mad at that person, she's onto the other partner SO FAST and it's equally as intense and steamy... Buuuut then that partner makes her angry, so it's back to the first partner right away and all oh-no-way-you-are-my-one-and-only, don't-ever-leave-me... Buuut then of course she gets mad at that one again, so baaaaaack to the other one... I was just like, ugh, MARY, seriously girl, have some devotion. Like, I fully support your exploring your bisexuality but I don't support your bouncing back and forth between partners whenever it's convenient for you. Relationships take some work - pick a partner and try to make it work with them, and make a clean break with the other one. You can't have your pirate-lady cake and eat your handsome-childhood-friend cake too. (I... I don't think that worked out as cleverly as I wanted it to, so... erm... let's just... move on, shall we...)

TL;DR: Just... meh. I think I might have liked it better if I hadn't been promised a "swashbuckling, smart novel" in the synopsis. That immediately sets my expectations up for an adventurous, plot-driven book... and that was just not what this is. At all. This is a romance novel, but it is definitely not a swashbuckling novel. And that promise in the synopsis vs. what was delivered was just way too far off for me, unfortunately.

Overall rating: 2 out of 5 stars

{ Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy. My reviews are honest and my opinions are my own; your reading experience may vary, so give it a read and see what you think. :) }

{ Follow Miriam McNamara }


  1. Oh noooo I have an eARC of this to read AND NOW I'M SO SAD! Why are pirate books so often so disappointing?! It's like please come now. Give me swashbuckling and mayhem it shouldn't be so hard.😭😭

    1. I know!!! I really wanted to love it. I think I would have liked it more if the synopsis didn't get me all excited for an exciting pirate adventure... yeah but sadly no mayhem here. :(

      (Side note: I'm late to the Daughter of the Pirate King party but I read that one right after and it totally delivered on the swashbuckling for me!!)

      Thanks for visiting my little corner of the book blogosphere! :)