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Monday, June 4, 2018

YA Review: The Unbinding of Mary Reade

Buckle in, kids, this is going to be a long one. Go get a drink. Go get a snack. Also, I'm warning you now, trigger warnings for basically all the things including queermisia, sexual assault, and transmisia.

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

Published: June 19th, 2018 by Sky Pony Press
Genre: Historical YA
Binding: E-arc
Page Count: Goodreads says 336
Part of a series? No, thank goodness.
Got via: It was available for download through Edelweiss.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): There’s no place for a girl in Mary’s world. Not in the home of her mum, desperately drunk and poor. Not in the household of her wealthy granny, where no girl can 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 sailor aboard a Caribbean merchant ship, Mary’s livelihood—and her safety—depends on her ability to disguise her gender.

At least, that’s what she thinks is true. But then pirates attack the ship, and in the midst of the gang of cutthroats, 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, earning herself the chance to join the account and become a pirate alongside Calico Jack and Anne Bonny.

For the first time, Mary has a shot at freedom. But imagining living 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.

Review: Oh, I started out so hopeful, and at the beginning of this, I was enjoying it. And then it just kept going more and more downhill until it was a frankly miserable experience to read. Here's me being the nicest I can: I did not like this one bit.

Okay, now I'm done being nice.

Plot Talk: There's a lot that's offensive in this book, but something that really bothered me about this book is that it's really, really boring between offensive bits. Long, long stretches of nothing happen. This book has over 50 chapters and I got 30 in and was like "how is half this book left?" At one point, I stabbed my arm a little and that was more fun than reading this. I read a little slower on kindle than with paperbooks, but this dragged so much. It feels like almost nothing actually happens in this book and it's just a bunch of assault and violence and annoying angst.

Characters: I'll come back to Mary in a bit, but let's talk about Anne. Anne Bonney, awesome female pirate who kicked butt and ruled and all that fun stuff we want to read about, right? Sucks to be us, then, 'cause that's not what we got. Anne cries a lot, and hides behind people (literally), and at one point seriously just lays down to die while they're being attacked. It is incredibly frustrating to read this character who's based on a real, cool historical figure, being reduced to "crying girl who doesn't do anything". Or, frankly, just "girl". The book uses her femininity so much to contrast against Mary's supposed lack of so much that at some points, Anne's character is basically "wears a dress and looks pretty". It makes her character really inconsistent, as the narrative lauds her as this super tough, powerful person, when she's not doing anything along those lines.

Now, this is going to sound like a bit of an odd complaint from me, but hear me out. All the men in this suck besides literally one old dude who dies halfway through, and I think that is an incredibly weak aspect of the writing for a few reasons. One is it's SUPER depressing if literally everyone your MC meets who's a man is trying to hurt them. It's also incredibly predictable, because pretty much as soon as you meet any male character, you know they're not a good person. It's never a surprise, which means there's no tension. There's just ongoing dread.

Third, and this is a big one - there is a love... square? Web? There's a somewhat complicated love interest because Mary and Anne are into each other but they both have other love interests as well, who are both men. Anne's other love interest straight-up abuses her. Marys's other love interest, and I'll point out that this dude is presented as an actual romantic option, not just a decoy, is not only kind of a jerk, but he actually watches her be sexually assaulted at one point and doesn't do anything about it, and is still meant to be a viable love interest after that. I don't want to like this guy, book! And I don't! So their romantic scenes are just icky!

Other than those four main characters, who I disliked pretty much all of, no other character really has any depth. They have like one trait and that's their character. No one else is really memorable in this book and other characters don't add much.

PG-13 stuff: There's a lot of violence, especially aimed at queer people (I'll go into this more in a bit in my cons/complaints section, as this is not a judgement based section), alcohol use (sometimes quite heavily), and sexual content.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: Okay, this is gonna take a while. Let's start with some of the simplist stuff. This one heck of a white book. While it's mentioned at one point that the pirates have many skin tones, in the actual execution of the book, that's basically meaningless. I could not tell you one POC character with a name. Along with that, I don't think I could name a disabled or fat character, and there aren't really any queer characters besides Mary and Anne.

Again, boring plot that dragged on and on, didn't like the characters, yada yada, that's all covered.

Let's get into my big thing here. And oh boy this is going to be long, but it's going to boil down to - I would never want a trans friend to read this, because I feel like it would be super hurtful for them. This book is one in a long line of books about (presumably) cisgender female characters cross-dressing because sexism, written by (presumably) cisgender authors. This seems to be especially prevalent in pirate books, but it is not solely their territory. This includes The Pirate Captain's Daughter by Eve Bunting, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce, and obviously many more.

I'd really like to be able to link to essays or blog posts or even twitter threads here from trans people talking about this trope, but that was a struggle and I didn't find a lot. So what I'm going to do, is I'm going to summarize the relevant for this book/review parts from this thread and also several other tweets by Shenwei (and then make Luci read this part to yell at me if I screw up, probably) and then I'll tell you which parts of the book do the things they said not to do/that were bad. Does that make sense?

Crossdressing characters are lying about their gender (implicating that trans characters are as well). This is gonna be important to remember later. Most of these stories do not get trans sensitivity readers, and are often written by cis authors who have no experience or sensitivity to trans issues. It also takes away focus from genderfluid and trans characters, especially ones written by ownvoices authors. I believe at some point Shen also mentions that many of these stories also culminate in the cross-dressing character being assaulted during the reveal.

The book does all of these, while adding a bit of an odd twist that I'll discuss after the rest. (I keep having to say that. This book has so many layers of bad.) First of all, it's not Mary's choice to cross-dress. Her mother forces her into it to scam her grandmother. To me, that could be read as saying adults force kids to be trans and they wouldn't really be it adults didn't say they were. Maybe that's a stretch, but looking back, it makes me raise an eyebrow. Mary dressing as a boy is 100% treated as lying about her gender by other characters, unless they're calling her slurs about trans people. The only actual kind of maybe (ridiculously offensive) trans-rep is what Mary refers to as "men dressed as women" who are described as having garish makeup, and who Mary then sees executed. They are only there to give Mary something to be afraid of if she's caught. I mean, I could keep going on about thngs like small penis jokes but I really, really don't want to. I think you get the point.

The thing I do want about, though, is that I think the author was trying to create the idea that Mary might be nonbinary or genderfluid or gender noncomforming, or something like that. It's not clear because she did it badly. There are several instances of Mary saying she's "not a girl or a boy" or "she's nothing", but never goes anywhere. This actually could have been a great way to go to subvert the usual tropes from an ownoices author, but this is not (afaik) an ownvoices author. As it is, it's just super messy and unclear what the author's intentions were.

Almost all instances of Mary being exposed also include sexual assault. This really reflects how much of the book includes sexual assault. There's one point where three straight chapters are someone getting sexually assaulted. It's exhausting and kind of exploitive and incredibly unnecessary. Especially when the characters getting assaulted are queer. Oh, there's also the part where Mary goes to her drunk and I mean wasted love interest, ties him to a table, and has sex with him. That was not awful to read at all.

Okay I only have energy for one more complaint in me, and that's is that Mary binds her chest with a strip of linen. For six or seven years. And she doesn't take it off at night. THAT WILL WARP YOUR RIBS. THAT IS INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS. WHAT THE ACTUAL EFF.

Cover comments: The cover is the only thing I like about the book at this point. It's what drew me in. I should have resisted harder.

Conclusion: This is a case where I'd love to link to ownvoices reviews, but I also don't want any trans and nonbinary people to actually read this, because I'm pretty sure it would be really hurtful, and I don't want to sign people up for pain. I didn't like this. I really, really did not like this. I would not recommend it to anyone. You can take my opinion with a grain of salt as I'm not trans, but, geesh, this was exhausting to read. One out of five roses solely because I enjoyed the beginning before the book destroyed my soul.

Other notes:

- I can't figure out where to put this in the review, but the book also does a really annoying thing with Nat and Mary. At one point, Nat has a bunch of angst because he's attracted to her while she's dressed as "Mark", and he panicked thinking that made him gay or whatever and now he's all relieved because it's okay, she's really a girl! Mary is not offended by this. Mary is just excited that that means he really is into her and now they can be married and make babies! Laina is offended by this.

- Mary is kind of annoying too.

- The main romance is also pretty annoying.

- Is the title referring to her not binding her chest anymore? Because seriously that's what I'm getting from it.

- I could probably keep going, but I am thoroughly sick of thinking about this book.

I hope whatever you guys have been reading, you've enjoyed it more.

Peace and cookies,

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