The closest I’ve ever been on a boat is looking at a picture of the Queen Mary, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love reading stories about people who have adventures on the high seas! I’m partial to pirates and naval captains, but I’ll basically read anything if the summary even sniffs near the word “seafaring.”
Here are seven of my favorite books that take place on the ocean:
1. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
On a long, grueling journey from England to Rhode Island in 1802, a 12 year old changes from a prim and proper girl to a swashbuckling mate of a mutinous crew and is accused of murder by the captain.
Why it’s awesome:
You don’t get many stories about a young girl making her way from typical young gentlewoman to swashbuckling sailor, and this one is particularly intense. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, including the increasingly mad captain’s violence towards the crew. Besides the thriller aspects, there’s also a lot of interesting information about ships and the people who sail them, plus life on the sea and all its perils. Charlotte is a particularly good character– strong and unwavering in her beliefs, as well as of course being adventurous and willing to do hard work. It’s a wonderfully fresh look at a coming-of-age story, and a ripping good yarn as well.
Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.
When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.
Why it’s awesome: Dragons + Napoleonic war + FEELINGS = win! So much win!
3. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Peter Blood, a physician and English gentleman, turned pirate out of a rankling sense of injustice. Barely escaping the gallows after his arrest for treating wounded rebels, Blood is enslaved on a Barbados plantation. When he escapes, no ship sailing the Spanish Main is safe from Blood and his men.
This classic adventure is alive with color, romance, and excitement and smoothly comments on the social injustices of slavery, the dangers of intolerance, the power of love, the role of fate, and the ways oppression can drive good men to desperate measures.
Why it’s awesome: From my review back in 2010: “pirates! snarkiness about kings and royalty and nobles and governors! swashbuckling adventures! morals even under duress! a slightly likable female character who gives shit to the hero! the hero who tells people to fuck off except in slightly more gentlemanly ways! tons of action scenes!”
Swept off course by a raging storm, a Swiss pastor, his wife, and four young sons are shipwrecked on an uncharted tropical island. Thus begins the classic story of survival and adventure that has fired the imaginations of readers since it first appeared in 1812.
Why it’s awesome:
Well, it’s really only awesome when combined with the visuals from the 1960 Disney movie. That treehouse? Total architecture crack. I love it, and the book is fun to read, too. Only a small part of the book takes place on the ship, but having to live on a deserted island is part and parcel of a proper high seas adventure, so I’m counting it.
5. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forrester
“The King’s latest bad bargain” grows from a pale, seasick youth into a brave, selfless leader in an adventure that ends with capture by the Spanish and a mission that gains him respect among the enemy’s forces, as well as Britain’s.
Why it’s awesome:
The Hornblower books are pretty much the staple seafaring novels, full of fighting and danger and friendships and lots of male character and very little female ones. (Boo.) Hornblower is a bit of a woobie, but he’s so genius at naval campaigns that it’s easy to forgive his emo-ness.
6. The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea by Barbara Sjoholm
The Pirate Queen begins in Ireland with the infamous Grace O’Malley, a ruthless pirate and scourge to the most powerful fleets of sixteenth-century Europe. This Irish clan chieftain, sea captain, and pirate queen was a contemporary of Elizabeth I, a figure whose life is the stuff of myth. Regularly raiding English ships caught off Ireland’s west coast, O’Malley was purported to have fought the Spanish armada just hours after giving birth to her son. She had several husbands in her lifetime, and acquired lands and castles that still dot the Irish coastline today.
But Grace O’Malley was not alone. Since ancient times, women have rowed and sailed, commanded and fished, built boats and owned fleets. As pirate, captain’s wives, lighthouse keepers and sailors in disguise they’ve explored coastlines and set off alone across unknown seas. Yet their incredible contributions have been nearly erased from the history books. In The Pirate Queen, Barbara Sjoholm brings some of these extraordinary women back to life, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey from the wild Irish coast to the haunting Scandinavian fjords in this meticulously researched, colorfully written, and truly original work
Why it’s awesome: I have recently stumbled across a reading list of books about female pirates, but way back when this was the only one I could find. Which doesn’t negate how much I enjoyed it! The mix of personal travel memoir and biography is grand.
7. Pirate Talk or Mermalade by Terese Svoboda
Pursued by a mermaid, two boys talk their way into pirating and end up in the Arctic where a secret unhinges them both. Disabled piecemeal, harassed by a parrot, marooned on a tree-challenged island, posing as Pilgrims, scrimshawing and singing their way out of prison, the spunky pirates of Pirate Talk or Mermalade defy and indeed eliminate all description: it’s a novel in voices.
Why it’s awesome: The best kind of fantastical book is the one that gives you strange dreams after you read it. This is one of those books.
What is your favorite high seas adventure book?