I don’t know what is in the water this year, but I have read several books about women sailing treacherous seas. Rita Chang-Eppig’s story is the second one I’ve read in 2023 that explores the difficulties of being a woman, a mother, and a pirate. The first book, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi focused on the adventure and not so much being a mother, but Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea flips the script, and we get a tense, historical fantasy featuring a mother scrambling to keep her place among the world’s most ruthless men.
All it takes is one killing blow from a Portuguese sailor to throw Shek Yeung’s future into question. Shek Yeung’s husband was both her savior and her captor, and a strange mix of emotions now swirls in her head as Cheng Yat bleeds out on their ship. Her once-secure position at his side dissolves, and the pirate fleet now belongs to Cheng Yat’s second-in-command, Cheung Po. Shek Yeung must make her move quickly if she wants this transfer of power to go in her favor. But being a woman in a man’s world is no easy task, and Shek Yeung will leverage all that she can to guarantee her safety.
Overall, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea was a fine story. First, I struggled with the awkward pacing. The book starts off well enough but then we spend a lot of time on an arc in Taiwan, and then the rest of the story seems to unfold at breakneck speed. It’s disorienting because it’s hard to tell if a scene will jump to the next moment or fast forward several months and you’re constantly trying to find your place in Shek Yeung’s timeline. There are a lot of elements in the book that feel unfinished like Shek Yeung’s relationship with the goddess Ma-Zou and the politics happening between China and Europe. I saw a potential for parallels to occur between Shek Yeung and Ma-Zou’s story but the goddess’ presence ends up feeling disconnected. Additionally, the Taiwan arc spends a lot of time setting up the tension between China, Europe, and the Dutch, but these powers largely serve as faceless enemies. The character relationships are shallow and have enough connective tissue for us to understand Shek Yeung’s motivations with them. And I didn’t love how abrupt the ending was, but it does play into the neverending uncertainty we’ve experienced while shadowing Shek Yeung. There does appear to be a sense of peace surrounding Shek Yeung and her place in the world at the end. While I can appreciate that her future is unknown, I found it unsatisfying to have so many loose ends. There are several reasons why the story didn’t sit particularly well with me, but what I did enjoy was the strong and memorable themes.
Much of Shek Yeung’s story centers on the moment of freedom she is granted following Cheng Yat’s death and what she will decide for her future. Does she retire and live a quiet life, or does she grasp the helm harder to maintain her hold on the pirate fleet? Shek Yeung’s decision brings about the book’s major theme around power and how much a woman needs to find safety or have control over her life. Shek Yeung believes that leading the fleet gives her control, yet Chang-Eppig constantly shows just how much that control is an illusion. Shek Yeung may lead a powerful fleet of pirates, but she spends every moment rehearsing conversations, assuaging the egos of fellow captains, and asserting her dominance to maintain respect from the crew. Shek Yeung believes this role gives her control, yet she works harder and worries more than any of the fleet’s male counterparts so she can keep her edge. Shek Yeung demonstrates that a woman can work her way to the top, but maintaining that position is another game entirely.
Chang-Eppig also does a great job othering Skek Yeung from her male-dominated crew. Shek Yeung shares her fears of being strong and respected enough among the crew, but not being so tough that she becomes cruel. Yet, she over-thinks every word and action because if she’s not cruel enough, then she could appear too soft and then lose ground among the hardened pirates. There’s also a lot of commentary on women’s vulnerability when they’re pregnant, and how that experience factors into literally every moment of their lives and future plans. The men on the ship don’t care if they encounter an unexpected enemy or if they won’t be near a port for several months. But a pregnant pirate is wary of violent skirmishes and is anxious to be so far removed from medical help. While pirate life is obviously an extreme situation, the story does give us a good look at the mental load that women carry.
I enjoyed Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea a moderate amount, but I do appreciate how much the book made me think about the complex relationship women have with power and the tenuous place we hold in a patriarchal society. I give credit to Shek Yeung’s short, sporadic journey for sparking a lot of reflection as I parse through her chaotic and sorrowful life.
Rating: Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea – 6.5/10