Faustian bargains never turn out well for anyone but the devil, something the protagonist of Gabe Cole Novoa’s stunning new stand-alone pirate fantasy, The Wicked Bargain, knows very well. Mar has been a beneficiary of their father’s devilish deal for sixteen years. Everyone knows the story: the famous pirate el Embrujado made a deal with the devil to protect his legacy, saving the life of infant Mar and giving the pirate and his crew a legendary run. Mar never believed the story—and on their sixteenth birthday, they find out that it’s true in the worst way.
El Diablo has come to collect. La Catalina, the ship that has been Mar’s home and sanctuary, will not survive the storm.
Mar isn’t supposed to survive either, but when they wash up, rescued, on the deck of La Ana, ship of the only other remaining successful pirate in the Caribbean, they have to start anew. Not only is the grief of losing their family, and their home, heavy on their shoulders, but they have to keep two secrets: first, Mar is nonbinary, something not everyone understands, and, more importantly, Mar has magic.
It wasn’t magic enough to save their crew. And the last time Mar used their full strength, they became a monster. They won’t ever let that happen again.
Novoa ushers readers right into the lush world at the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, pitting people of indigenous heritage (including Mar) against the Spaniards who have colonized their lands. The double antagonism of the pirate-hunting, oppressive navy plays beautifully into the pirate narrative to such a degree that it feels almost surprising this angle hasn’t become the dominant pirate story. Mar’s father and their crew (as well as La Ana’s) support rebels throughout the Caribbean, trying to end the Spanish occupation. While there’s certainly still a love of gold and glory common to pirate stories here, the deeper motivation, the search for a land free from tyranny, gives readers a greater reason to side with the pirate heroes.
Mar’s magic, and their struggle to keep it contained, is also beautifully done. The magic has dual natures—ice and fire—that rage through Mar’s veins, appearing as tattoos across their skin. The “tattoos” glow when Mar’s powers are used, something sure to give them away as a demonio or a monstruo. Given what once happened, Mar’s not entirely sure they can disagree with people who would call them those names. But as Novoa follows Mar’s struggle, their battle against accepting this side of themselves, he opens new doors and new perspectives. Mar’s father always told them of the beauty of their magic, and fantasy readers will get it immediately—glowing tattoos and tremendous magical powers that belong to our hero can only be for the good in the long run! But it takes Mar far longer to come to terms with their abilities.
And that’s before they even encounter their first demonio.
Of course, Mar’s not foolish enough to enter a deal. That’s what got their father killed after all. But Novoa’s introduction of Dami, a demonio who really wants to make a deal with Mar, is pitch perfect. Dami is confident and fluid, comfortable in their own, ever-changing skin in a way that Mar is not. Completely charming and untrustworthy, Dami is both a fantastic foil for Mar and a strong character in their own right, with a hidden depth belied by their cocky exterior.
All of this would be enough to make an epic adventure—but what’s a pirate story without a little romance? There’s no damsel in distress here (most of the women readers meet are rebel leaders in no need of rescue), and there’s definitely no kidnapped governor’s daughter. Instead, Mar’s primary relationship is with a boy who drives them to their wit’s end: Bas, the teen sailor who directed the crew of La Ana to rescue Mar from the sea. Like Dami, Bas is overconfident and charming, but he’s ultimately far more trustworthy than a demonio (even if he’d be tempted to make a deal himself).
For readers who live far from the tropical climes of the Caribbean, this dose of pirate adventure is a perfect remedy for the doldrums of not-quite-spring. As a protagonist, Mar is easy to root for, and Novoa populates the cast with a well-drawn, sympathetic crew of likable pirates, fighting against an overwhelming foe.
And sometimes, against the Devil himself.
The Wicked Bargain is available now.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.