As you know, this is a trilogy, containing Serendipity’s Tide, Treachery’s Harbor, and Fealty’s Shore. It’s available in Kindle but not, I hear, for Nook — but visit the author’s website and you can see all the buying options, plus it looks like you might be able to just read it online.
Okay, people, truly, this story has lots to love: girl engineers, mysterious shipwrecked guys, pirates, daring escapes, patronizing young gentlemen who get nowhere trying to patronize girl engineers, annoying bureaucrats, extreme culture clash, sudden marriages at sea, thugs and assassins, more daring escapes, complicated family relationships, treachery, messages gone astray, diplomatic crises barely averted, and tons of clever worldbuilding and delightful dialogue.
Want to meet the two protagonists? Try this:
“Dying of thirst so that I have a better chance of surviving doesn’t work – I’m afraid of dead bodies. If you die, I’m going to jump into the ocean and get eaten by sharks.”
He closed his eyes. “I am not dying of thirst.”
“Prove it! Stand up and dance a jig or something.”
His eyes opened again, and he pushed himself up to a sitting position. “I do not know what a jig is.”
I thrust the cup at him. “From now until doomsday, I’m not drinking a single drop of water until I see you drink your share first.”
He looked at the water, and then he crossed his arms across his chest. “We do not have enough for two people.”
“I’m telling you, it’s both of us or neither of us. You keep forgetting, I’m really just a helpless little girl. I can’t survive out here on my own. You have to stay alive so that you can look after me.”
He actually laughed at that.
And well he might. They’ve only just met, but it’s been an eventful day, and it’s already crystal clear that Batiya is anything but a helpless little girl. Although she actually does need Chunru to look after her – shortly after this, he saves her from pirates. But she’s already saved him from pirates, so that makes them even. Actually, I lost track early on who saved whom more often, because the story does not get less eventful.
But I don’t love Batiya because she saved Chunru from pirates. I love her because she really does think like an engineer, because she’s totally down-to-earth, because she’s happy with who she is – her character arc involves no angst to speak of, which is great – and because I just love the way she is always figuring stuff out from half a clue.
Plus, it’s especially refreshing that Batiya is not consumed by angst, since actually she does have a lot to deal with, as in her society girls are not normally engineers. (Think industrializing Eastern Europe for her and Imperial China for Chunru and you’ll get a good idea of the culture clash embedded in this story.) Batiya is comfortable with being a girl and being an engineer; almost implausibly so given she is only nineteen and incredibly inexperienced in some ways. But then, growing up in her family provides a fairly believable background for this combination. And a good reason to have developed such a smooth, practiced manner of dealing with patronizing young men and snide young women, as here:
“But you let a Shan call you Batiya?”
I pretended to think about that and finally said, “I don’t want to be accused of putting my thumb on the scales. If anyone here saves me from a fate worse than death by single-handedly killing three pirates, I’ll let them call me Batiya too.”
Isn’t that perfect? I tell you, her countrymen are just so annoying at times.
“Is it true you’re an apprentice engineer, Miss Latikov?” one of the girls asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And on the liner you worked on, you slept with all those burly coal-heavers?”
I decided it was pointless to tell them that I had actually shared a cabin with my Uncle Stan. “There aren’t any coal-heavers on the Empress Katronika,” I said instead. “She’s powered by ten diesel engines burning a mixture of paraffin and bio-fuel produced from crops grown in Dostrovia – primarily the Bogaposk district.”
Strikovad nudged his friend. “Your folks have a place in Bogaposk, don’t they?”
“The fuel is injected into the engines using a special pressurized system,” I continued, “that makes it burn more efficiently. We also have a much smaller engine-room crew than this –”
“But it smells weird,” Strikovad interrupted.
I blinked at him. “You’ve been on the Empress Katronika?”
“No, but I’ve seen a diesel engine at work in one of my father’s factories in Vamdiksi.”
“Really?” I asked, suddenly interested. “What does it make?”
Batiya really does think like an engineer, see. Want to give her the perfect gift? How about a tremendously intricate broken clockwork toy? Because she will love taking it apart and fixing it. I found every scene of this kind highly entertaining, even though I personally don’t know the first thing about engines or clockworks or anything of the kind.
The worldbuilding is just as wonderful as the characters – the details are great, both in the Eastern-Europe analog and the Imperial China analog. Colors and styles of clothing, where and how cloth is made (Wakani shawls aren’t made in Wakani, you know – they’re made in Kostolnin Flats, one neighborhood over from West Borstev, on these big fancy automated looms that – and then Batiya’s enthusiastic explanation of how and where Wakani shawls are made gets cut off.) We get these details scattered liberally all through the books. Styles of music, calendars and clocks, hanging prayer tablets on a tree (on a pink ribbon for good luck in childbirth), a giant statue of a crab in the middle of the road (for no reason that’s explained).
I particularly enjoyed the slang. There’s a ton of slang in this book, mostly appropriate for the working-class culture that Batiya comes from, but also some, entirely different in tone, from Changali. It’s hard to come up with fictional slang that sounds right, or I always thought it was, but Shelby makes it look easy. Maybe some of this is real slang from a real culture, I don’t know, but either way, it sounds perfect:
I’m overjoyed. Gleeful. Brighter than a bean in a bucket.
They’d pick out some boy they knew nothing about and decide he was the man of their dreams and start acting like melted cheese whenever they saw him.
You’d better warn him to get his boots laced.
What’s a white-sider Brussels-sprout doing in a game like this?
Someone told you the Dostrovian ambassador liked picking sunflowers.
It’s all perfectly clear in context and serves wonderfully to deepen the world – you feel it has to be a real society, because a bean in a bucket?
Now, Changali is much more formal, right down to the slang, such as, “This is an idea so clever that it fills me with a fog of admiration”, meaning “Wut?”
The languages of Changali also contain characteristic turns of phrase and so on, like “This you should never regret,” and “All this is fascinatingly different.” I particularly loved this bit:
“Tell me about Shanali.”
“I say the name wrong, don’t I?”
“Up north in Rarfahn, they would say Shangali. And in Gea Trach Poi, which is at the western edge of our country, they would say, Chanali. So you sound like you have a western and a northeastern accent at the same time. This is very charming.”
I’m pretty sure that by this point, Chunru finds just about everything about Batiya very charming. Chunru is a great protagonist himself – well, he has to be, or he would hardly be a match for Batiya. He’s autocratic, determined, honorable, ruthless, possessive, and of course far from stupid. Also, it’s a good thing Chunru is an excellent male lead, because he gets to be the pov protagonist in the second book. I loved Batiya’s pov, so it took me about ten pages to get over the switch. After which I really enjoyed Chunru’s pov, too.
The third book is nearly all from Batiya’s pov, by the way, but switches to Chunru’s right at the end, at least partly so the reader can be aware of one or two things happening behind the scenes that Batiya misses. On the whole I was glad to get mostly Batiya’s pov, though as I said, I like both. Also, as I said earlier, the entire third book does strike me as a very extended epilogue, which is not to say nothing happens, but the big problem of the first two books has been resolved and the big problem in the third book is, well, the sort of thing that seems to fit in an epilogue. It’s the making-a-life-for-yourself-in-Changali part, after Batiya and Chunru finish up in Dostrovia and go to Changali to explain the whole thing to Chunru’s father. I could have done with a bit less Batiya-MUST-be-sleeping-around suspicion – I mean, seriously, we are still suspicious? Haven’t we learned better yet? – though I admit that your enemies feeding you fake information can lead to that kind of thing.
Oh, I should stress that there is no point at which Chunru himself doubts Batiya. That would have been outrageous, but it doesn’t happen. I’m talking about Chunru’s father, here. Not that Chunru himself can’t be unreasonably jealous of, say, ambassadors who like to pick sunflowers, but he knows very well Batiya is definitely not interested in helping anyone with their, um, flower arrangements. Chunru just enjoys being jealous, I think. Batiya kind of enjoys it too, and doesn’t take it too seriously. That aspect of their relationship actually reminded me of Kate and Curren in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews.
The other work that this reminds me of is the duology The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke. Both have catchy writing, a similar culture clash between a working-class girl from one society and an upper-class guy from another, an emphasis on sailing and the sea, and so on. Clarke’s series is youngish YA, though, and Shelby’s is either right at the top edge of YA or else it’s adult – to me, it reads as adult fantasy because Batiya is decidedly mature for nineteen, and the plot has wider scope, and also because the world just feels, I don’t know, like it has deeper foundations. But if you liked Clarke’s books, you should try the Jade Sea series; and if you didn’t, well, you should still try the Jade Sea series.
This story is not perfectly flawless, btw. I don’t want to be over-the-top and give you all inflated expectations that nothing could live up to. I did find Imperial Spoiled Brat Lulahn disappointingly one-dimensional, for example; I kept thinking she would show a glint of something worthwhile under all that self-absorbed stupidity, but no. Who knows, though, maybe in a sequel she could be better developed? I would love to read more stories set in this world; my pick for protagonist would be Batiya’s brother Vanitri.
A note about grammatical errors: There are a few more than you would find in a typical traditionally published book, but by no means so many as to interfere in any significant way with the reading experience, particularly if you were not trained by a science background into reflexive perfection as far as the effect / affect thing goes. Frankly, as far as eye-catching errors go, it bothers me a whole lot more that Strange Chemistry replaced “all right” with “alright” in BLACK DOG, since no offense to Strange Chem’s house style, but I hate that with a white-hot burning passion.