What happens when you cross Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander with magic, alchemy, steampunk, alternate history, fairy tales, and impossible science? Really rad pirate ships in space!
Ok, so they aren’t always pirate ships, but they are all masted ships sailing through air and space instead of across oceans—some meant for war, some meant for transportation, some that fly on solar winds, and some that use a strange alchemy to thrust them forward. If you love the trope of Regency era sailing ships soaring through the air or exploring strange new worlds, the seven books below will provide just the kind of adventure you’re seeking.
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s fairy tale for adults was one of his earliest novels, published in 1999. Though the majority of the plot does not, in fact, take place on a flying pirate ship, there is a memorable scene (made even more memorable by the presence of Robert DeNiro in film adaptation) in which our main characters, hapless youth Tristran Thorn and the star-turned-human Yvaine, whom he’s captured, are rescued from a cloud by a flying pirate ship called the Perdita helmed by Johannes Alberic (in the movie he’s Captain Shakespeare). How did Tristran and Yvanne wind up on a cloud, you ask? It begins with Tristran’s foolish promise to Victoria, a girl he lusts after in his home village of Wall, to bring her a falling star they had seen. It’s a quest that leads him to cross the border into Faerie where he encounters all the adventure and fantastical characters you could ever want in a fairy tale including witches, unicorns, evil queens, and cat ladies.
Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Magonia is Maria Dahvana Headley’s YA debut, the first novel of a duology that concludes with Aerie. In addition to their beautiful covers, the novels boast stunning worldbuilding and an imaginative characters to populate the hidden sky realm of Magonia. Aza Ray is a teenage girl who has been dying her entire life. As much as she tries to be normal, dealing with boyfriend problems and other youthful concerns, her day-to-day reality involves a constant struggle to breathe, and a constant need to reassure her mother about her health. She’s quite cynical, but it would be difficult not to be, given her situation. Then one day, an anchor drops from the sky and changes everything, as Aza Ray discovers startling new facts about herself, the most important of which is that her body is not built for an earthly atmospheres. She’s meant to live in the sky, where she can finally breathe, and grow to be her true self. I was completely blown away by this world of floating lands, flying pirate ships, and beautiful bird people. It’s truly unlike anything else I’ve encountered in fantasy.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher
There’s a lot to love about the first book in Butcher’s high-flying fantasy series The Cinder Spires—complex politics involving power struggles between spire cities that reach high into the clouds, a diverse cast of engaging characters (both human and non-human), and some of the best talking cats around—but nothing stands out quite so much as the love and attention the author has given to the flying skyships that power the plot. The title ship, the Predator, a “windlass” vessel that soars through the heavens with the aid of a chunk of magical rock, but otherwise seems to function pretty much like the 18th century sailing ships of the Aubrey Maturin novels, is captained by the privateer Captain Grimm, who gets caught up in an attack by invaders against his benefactor, Spire Albion, and a larger conspiracy that could shift the balance of power between the Spires.
The Winds of Khalakovo, by Bradley B. Beaulieu
Beaulieu is best-known for his ongoing sandblasted fantasy epic set in the desert kingdom of Sharakhai, but his debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo, is largely set in a very different environment indeed: on the airships that navigate twisting air currents above a city that rests on a mountainous archipelago in the middle of a treacherous sea. With a supremely complex plot and a vast cast of characters, mirroring Russian novels of yore, the book (and its sequels, The Straits of Galahesh and The Flames of Shadam Khoreh) already stand out in a crowded fantasy field—even before you add in the multiple magic systems and the tense battle sequences, which take place high in the air, onboard multi-masted ships that can navigate in three dimensions.
Paperback $7.19 | $7.99
The Daedalus Incident, by Michael J. Martinez
This fun mix of science fiction and has two timelines at play. In the year 2132, Lt. Jain and her team are on Mars conducting a geological survey alongside roughneck miners stripping the planet of precious minerals. Soon, impossible and mysterious geological changes begin to occur on the planet, and Jain’s investigations lead to the discovery of a mysterious journal that’s writing itself. Three hundred years prior, Lt. Thomas Weatherby is aboard the HMS Daedalus, a frigate of the British Royal Navy powered by alchemy that flies between planets on solar winds. With the help of an interesting cast of characters including the ship’s captain, a drug-addled alchemist, and a serving girl who is more than she seems, Weatherby embarks on a mission to track down a dangerous and powerful mystic intent on upsetting the balance of the planets–with universe-altering consequences. By the time these two timelines meet, the book is already rushing toward an astonishing, action-filled conclusion. (The trilogy continues in The Enceladus Crisis and The Venusian Gambit.)
Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine
This alternate Regency era novel extrapolates on what might have happened if Isaac Newton had discovered the means for space travel rather than gravity, though I would classify it more as science fantasy than science fiction. Plucky protagonist Arabella was born in the British colony that occupies the planet Mars. Though her parents are of Earth, she has never been there before a minor accident causes her overprotective mother to send her to there to learn to act more like a lady of her station. While on Earth, Arabella learns of a plot to murder her father—so back to Mars she goes! This book offers detailed and engrossing descriptions of how a masted ship might work in space, alongside an over-the-top, not-based-at-all-in-fact description of life on Mars—and with its native inhabitants. Seek this one out if you’re looking for something playful and don’t mind overlooking the colonialist exploitation on display (the Martians are treated a bit like the native Africans were by the British, a fact the book doesn’t engage with critically). Sequel Arabella and the Battle of Venus was released in August.
Hardcover $23.39 | $25.99
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, by Curtis Craddock
This new novel is Curtis Craddock’s debut, and what a debut it is. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, presenting a wholly unique magic system juxtaposed against a science of alchemy that powers objects and lights in a world that has literally been broken. The pieces of former continents seem to be arranged around some sort of deadly void, and masted ships sail from harbor to harbor on currents of air. This is just the first book in the series, and I’m hoping all the tantalizing hints about the nature of the planet will lead to more revelations about how it came to be. For now, we’ll have to be content with an engrossing mystery told from the points of view of an aging royal musketeer and his ward, and a powerless princess born with a deformed hand that marked her as an outcast. They make an excellent team as they sail between bits of floating land, chasing after villains and doing their best to prevent a war. I’m looking forward to more of their adventures!
What’s your favorite story of seafaring ships sent to space?