Many moons ago, I threw a Pirates vs. Ninjas party (shut up; I know.) I don’t know how many pirates showed up, but I can tell you exactly how many ninjas were in attendance: two. The ninjas were me, because I was 8 months pregnant and already owned black maternity clothes, and my toddler, because I was the boss of him. Everyone else was a pirate. A friend put it to me this way: would you rather be stealthy and disciplined, or drunk and rowdy?
People love a pirate. People love scofflaws and bandits, rogues and rascals. They love swashbuckling; they love derring-do; they really love sticking it to The Man. Pirates twist together blank map narratives —where Westerners sail into the uncharted seas to encounter terrors and wonders—with a cheerful Robin Hood sensibility. Pirates aren’t dour or single-minded explorers, intent on domination; they’re explorers’ partying cousins. Even when they’re evil, they’re memorable. I couldn’t tell you much about Treasure Island, which was read to me as a girl, but I remember the part about the Black Spot. Pirates draw attention, and hold it, knives in their teeth.
It’s no surprise writers have incorporated these big, brawling personalities into their fantasy worlds. Pirates are engines of chaos, and as such, can help writers shake up their narratives and drive their protagonists to extremity. If the protagonist is a pirate, then more’s the better. Here are 16 essential pirate fantasy novels.
(I’m allowing airship captains, but not space pirates, in the interests of keeping this list to a manageable size. Sorry, Han Solo. Maybe next list.)
On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
Tim Powers writes some of the best secret histories around, and On Stranger Tides is one them. Set in the Golden Age of piracy, it includes such historical figures as Blackbeard and Ponce de León, wound into fantastic discovery narratives like the search for the Fountain of Youth. Indigenous folklore—zombies, vodun, and the sorcerers that perform that voodoo magic—are as real as the creaking boards of pirate ships or the girl who must be rescued. Which is to say, history is a complicated mix of fact and fiction, and Powers blurs the line between them. Powers’s novel was used (very loosely) as the source material for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, though his Jack and that Jack are very different characters.
Paperback $16.19 | $17.99
Magic of Blood and Sea, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Magic of Blood and Sea collects the duology of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish, which follow the irascible pirate’s daughter Ananna of the Tanarau. She bugs out of her arranged marriage with a rival pirate clan, who then send the assassin Naji after her. She and the assassin inadvertently trigger an impossible curse, one that binds them in an uneasy and inescapable intimacy. Ananna and Naji must sail across the seas and into the most dangerous waters to break their curse. Ananna is a proud, single-minded creature, a product of her life on the water with her pirate parents, and her matriculation has as much to do with the strength of her convictions as it does her ability to trust and let go. A lovely coming of age tale, with pirates!
Paperback $13.59 | $16.99
A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab
In A Darker Shade of Magic, Schwab introduces us to Delilah Bard, a cutpurse and pickpocket living in Grey London. Grey London is roughly analogous to Georgian England, but it lies upon other Londons: Red, White, and Black. All of the Londons are fixed points in changing worlds, stretched and bent by magic or its lack. In A Gathering of Shadows, Bard shifts from Grey London into Red London, where magic is fecund and flowing. Almost immediately, she finds herself a pirate ship and sails out into the unknown. Lila Bard is a fascinating character: prickly, self-contained, and running with strange ambitions. Her call to piracy is as strong as her call to magic itself—magic which is faltering in all of the worlds, no matter the color. Her piracy may end up being something of a diversion, but it is a diversion with teeth, teaching her a kind of trickery that will be necessary when she goes up against the adversary himself. (The final novel in this trilogy, A Conjuring of Light, came out not so long ago, and features a fair number of pirates as well.)
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
The Princess Bride belongs to the rare category of books with a film adaptation that’s just as good. Given how completely fantastic the film is, this is really saying something. Both versions have the frame narrative of the grandfather reading his son a story, but the book gets so much more layered, with the commentary of the adult ready set against the “original” text. Blah, blah, what I meant to say was: pirates! The Princess Bride contains the most famous modern fictional pirate going: the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is [spoiler alert] not an individual, but a series of pirate captains who assume the mantle, then retire once they’ve grown rich enough. The creator of the Silk Road, a darknet black market, was known under the nom de guerre of Dread Pirate Roberts. Which lead to some speculations that maybe the man they eventually nabbed wasn’t the creator at all. (But then again, maybe he knew we knew that he knew that we’d get the reference.)
The Scar, by China Miéville
The Scar begins with a ragtag group of folk leaving the fetid city of New CrobuZon to reinvent themselves in a new colony across the sea. There’s a librarian and a scientist, a cabin boy and an impressed criminal. Their new lives in a new place are diverted when they’re taken by pirates aboard the floating pirate city of Armada, a city made up of thousands of ships lashed together on the open water. Some of the characters find their life’s work aboard this pirate city, while others wish to press on to the mirage of the new colony. The pirate city is beset by factionalism and infighting, even as they resist the open rule of New Crobuzon. Piracy in the Bas-Lag books is just another form of government.
Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
The second outing in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series introduces us to Zamira Drakasha, the captain of the Poison Orchid. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, the thief protagonists of The Lies of Locke Lamora, fall under the captainship of Zamira due to one of their complicated long cons. The Gentleman Bastard books deal with the strange honor among thieves—why the series is named after both gentlemen and bastards. The protagonist thieves have an interesting relationship with the pirate captain Zamira: they have certain similarities in worldview and cussedness, but thieves and pirates aren’t precisely the same. Zamira is as beholden to her pirate council as Locke is to his thieves’ guild, which is to say: not necessarily bound to their judgement—thieves and pirates will do what they do—but still hopeful of the help of their inconstant peers.
Steel, by Carrie Vaughn
Jill is super bummed when she blows an important fencing match. As she sulks on vacation with her parents on a Caribbean island, she finds the tip of an old rapier. This artifact transports her back to the deck of an honest-to-goodness 18th Century pirate ship. While in many ways Jill is an expert with a sword, she learns quickly that there’s a difference between the heat of the moment and the sanitized matches she’s been trained for. Like some other books on this list, Vaughn includes such historical pirates as Black Beard, with new characters like the female pirate Captain Cooper mixed in. Historical pirates were a lot less hung up on things like race, class, and gender, and it’s cool to imagine how a pirate captain who is a woman would act.
Heart of Steel, by Meljean Brook
The captain of the Lady Corsair, Yasmeen, is somewhere between a mercenary and a privateer. Maybe neither of these things are pirates, but they’re pretty close when you squint just right. Piracy is just theft under the wrong flag, after all. Yasmeen commandeered her airship from the father of Archimedes Fox. The younger Fox, an adventurer and treasure hunter, seeks her out because he wants to thank her for ridding the world of his horrible father. Heart of Steel has everything you could hope for in a steampunk romance airship adventure: kraken, zombies, mechanical monsters, Leonardo da Vinci, genetic manipulation, and insurrection. A pirate list wouldn’t be a pirate list without a little bit of mutiny.
Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff
Sewer, Gas and Electric veers close to bizarro, by way of Futurama. In a near-future New York, a man is building a Tower of Babel with android steelworkers, his ex-wife has decanted the spirit of Ayn Rand into a hurricane lamp to act as her assistant, and an eco-pirate plies the waters around Manhattan in a submarine designed by Howard Hughes. (Pretty much everything about this novel is bananas.) The eco-piracy definitely fits in a fictional world that includes the ghost of the mother of libertarianism, nasty racially specific viruses, and a one-armed veteran of the Civil War. A statistically significant subset of novels set in New York are a commentary on the American political hindbrain, and the eco-sub pirates of Sewer, Gas and Electric sink down into our collective national consciousness.
Vampirates, by Justin Somper
Your enjoyment of this series can likely be predicated on how you react to the portmanteau of the title (vampires + pirates = vampirates!). In the 26th Century, newly orphaned twins Connor and Grace are shipwrecked and separated, then rescued by two different pirate ships. One of these ships is captained by the eponymous vampirate. There’s a lot of reliance of goofy genre tropes and big set pieces, which are either charming or tiresome depending on your predilections. The Vampirates novels are gleeful pulp homages, full of energy.
Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie
I would be remiss not to include Peter Pan, one of the formative fantasy tales that includes pirates. (Treasure Island is probably as important to piratical literature, but it doesn’t contain the overt fantasy elements required for this list.) Siblings Wendy, John, and Michael Darling are taken from their Victorian home by the eternal child, Peter Pan. In Neverland, his home, they become part of his company of Lost Boys, children discarded by the industrial machine. Peter’s great enemy is the pirate Captain Hook, who had his hand fed to a crocodile by Peter. Beguiled by the taste, the crocodile still hunts him. The historical Blackbeard returns again, as Barrie affirms that Hook was Blackbeard’s former bo’sun. Though the character of Captain Hook was a late addition to Barrie’s classic, it’s hard to imagine Peter Pan without his adult antagonist. Peter is not the most ethically pure character, what with his child-theft and hedonism, and Hook acts the foil: whatever his faults, Peter is still a child.
The Child Thief, by Brom
Speaking of Peter, The Child Thief is a decidedly not child-friendly contemporary retelling of Peter Pan. Fourteen-year-old Nick is taken from his violent New York home by Peter, and into a more Celtic and Arthurian Neverland than we find in Barrie’s classic. Technically there are no pirates in this novel; Captain Hook and his mates have been replaced with Puritan settlers long trapped in this Avalon of sorts. I include the Puritanical settlers as a foil to the concept of piracy. Part of the romanticism of piracy is based on how brutal and cruel the law can be, structured towards the aims of empire. The pirate confounds the law, and replaces self-interest with the interests of empire. (Whether that’s good or bad, I leave you to argue amongst yourselves.) A settler commandeering land with the full force of the law is something different than a water-bound robbery, though they may create each other.
Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Here’s another riff on Peter Pan, this time a much lighter retelling. Barry and Pearson’s novel is a prequel to the original Peter Pan, which finds the eponymous Peter sailing off aboard the Never Land with his fellow inmates of St. Norbert’s Home for Wayward Boys. Peter and the Starcatchers and its sequels answer the questions of Hook’s origin story, how Peter can fly, and where Peter and his Lost Boys came from. It’s also a romping adventure story, cut from the same cloth as the original, but without out all the Victorian drear—the tone is very much Harry Potter on an out-of-Hogwarts escapade. Fans of the darkness of the original might not be satisfied with this prequel, but on its own terms, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ged, who will later become one of the great magicians of Earthsea, was raised on the island of Gont, a rarely visited backwater. Gont produces two kinds of people: shepherds and pirates. Ged finds another way, a middle path, but not until trying the two options ahead of him. Throughout Le Guin’s Earthsea books, which take place on an archipelago in an endless sea, we meet a number of pirates, from the Kargish northerners (who are something like Vikings) to the Gontish pirates of Ged’s youth. While the series doesn’t linger on pirates too long, it do detail sailing and the pleasures of open water to a great extent. Ged may know all the ways of magic, a strength of skill beyond all others, but the simple skills of racing across the waves register just as strongly for the age’s greatest magician.
The Nature of a Pirate, by A.M. Dellamonica
This is a portal fantasy tailor-made for marine biology buffs—protagonist Sophie Hansa is a modern-day student of the science of aquatic life, as well as a burgeoning videographer, when she, camera in hand, inadvertently crosses over into a magical world while searching for her long-lost birth mother. With her incongruously modern technology, she becomes a sort of de facto chronicler of the world of Stormwrack, a watery world where much of the populace lives on the many ships that make up the Fleet of Nations. In the third, and most pirate-y, volume, Sophie becomes a key player in the effort to put down a roving band of marauders plundering the floating city-states. In rejigging the tropes of both portal fantasy and pirate stories, Dellamonica imagines a much more diverse and inclusive world, and gives her intelligent, headstrong lead a great deal of agency over her fate.
The Flying Dutch, by Tom Holt
The Flying Dutch is deeply silly, ostensibly based on either the Wagnerian opera or the folk myth, or both. It’s been both favorably and unfavorably compared to Terry Pratchett’s novels, full of a British punning sort of humo(u)r and the ridiculous. There’s something incredibly charming about a novel that begins with actuarial tables, as an insurance agent strikes out to find a group of immortal pirates who are absolutely messing up the insurance world. Let us all remember that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began with intergalactic road maintenance.
What’s your favorite pirate fantasy?