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Review: Blackhearts

Review: Blackhearts

Title: Blackhearts
Author: Nicole Castroman
Published: 2016
Length: 369 pages

My star rating:  ★ ★

After the deaths of her parents, Anne is sent by her malicious half-brother to work in the Drummond household as a maid. Anne is of mixed racial heritage, and she longs to escape the judgmental people of Bristol and travel to the West Indies to find her mother’s family. Meanwhile, the young son of Master Drummond, Edward–called Teach–has just returned from a year at sea. Despite his father’s disapproval, he is desperate to escape his arranged marriage and resume his sailing career. Sparks fly from the first time the two meet, and soon Anne and Teach begin working together to achieve their mutual goal: escaping the Drummond household.

This book was terrible and a major let-down, too. Did anything you just read hint that this book was supposed to be about a teenage Blackbeard, the infamous pirate captain? No. It didn’t. Because it wasn’t. It was a bland, cliche, poorly-written “historical-ish” romance, nothing more.

I’m so disappointed. Blackhearts went on my to-read list as soon as I read the totally misleading blurb.  (The blurb promises that “From the moment Teach and Anne meet, they set the world ablaze.” That might not imply actual piracy, but it does imply excitement and adventure, right? Right?!)

I find the Golden Age of Piracy, of which Edward “Blackbeard ” Teach was a large part, totally fascinating. Piracy was often a means of escape for the most downtrodden members of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century society. It was a diverse democratic experiment that existed many decades before either the American or French revolutions, a system in which ships’ crews had total control except in the heat of battle and in which wealth was distributed more or less equally, a taste of freedom and of agency in an oppressive and immobile society for which many people were willing to risk their lives. Those, not peg-legs and eyepatches, are the real reasons that piracy has lived on in our collective imagination for thee centuries.

Only when I reached the halfway point of Blackhearts did I realize that it is not about piracy–or even sailing–nor would it ever be. It’s just about insipid teen angst and melodrama.

First things first: I’m sure that Ms. Castroman is a lovely person, but she is not a good writer. In fact, she’s a rather bad one. Her prose is wooden and juvenile, full of telling rather than showing. None of her characters have any depth; I never cared one whit about either of the mains. Whether Anne did or didn’t get caught/sacked/arrested for stealing Mr. Drummond’s silver, whether Teach did or didn’t marry Patience…it din’t matter to me. That isn’t a good sign.

So who are they, these unremarkable protagonists?

Anne, an illegitimate half-African and half-English girl of stunning beauty–because of course!–is the heroine. She looks down her nose at pretty much everyone. At first, she comes across as sympathetic; after all, she’s abandoned to servitude by her brother, then sexually harassed, slapped around by the housekeeper, and  jeered at by most characters because of her skin color. But she has a haughty, holier-than-thou attitude that really didn’t sit well with me. She acts as though her thievery is completely justified and condemns other girls as “trouble” just because they’re flirtatious or overtly sexual. She spends half the book waning to get away from England, and when the tables turn, she whines about being “sent away” from “the only home she’s ever known,” blah blah blah. She’s just not interesting, especially not when she complains about Teach’s treatment of her, but then spends most of the novel letting him push her around.

Teach, the male protagonist and Anne’s love interest, is even worse. He takes advantage of willing women, but then writes them off as no-good sluts as soon as he falls for the virtuous rose Anne–including the fiancee he once enjoyed dallying with! He manhandles and manipulates Anne and tells her what to do, but the worst thing about their romance was their utter lack of chemistry. They bicker and fight and complain about each other, then end up making out. Um…?? Teach is hot-tempered to the point of being violent (he’s supposed to be the future Blackbeard, after all), but he has no backbone. I kept waiting him for just to run away to sea already, since he wanted to do it so badly, but nooo. He had to whinge (in generic third-person narration) about his problems for three hundred pages instead.

As you might have gleaned from that, their relationship is also unhealthy, bordering on creepy. Teach treats Anne poorly throughout. He’s controlling and possessive. Even if there had been sparks between them–and again, there aren’t any–the romance wouldn’t really have worked.

The other characters are hardly worth mentioning. The worst is “Miss Patience” (as she is almost always called, much to my annoyance, never mind that historically she would be called Miss Hervey as her parents’ first and only daughter). Unlike “Queen” Anne–as Teach takes to calling her–Patience is empty-headed (she hasn’t read Paradise Lost, the horror, the horror!) and gasp! flirts openly, even permitting Teach to “take liberties” with her that no “respectable” girl would ever dream of doing…even though they’re supposed to be getting married. Dalliances among engaged couples were not all that uncommon in that time period. Patience is needlessly shamed and dismissed for her “unladylike” ways and her interests (fashion, dancing, etc.), but she’s just boring as the rest of them. Blah.

I don’t understand why this book is called “Blackhearts,” either, other than the play on Blackbeard’s name. Teach is obviously supposed to come off as sympathetic and devilishly charming in a “bad boy” sort of way, though he doesn’t, and Anne is practically a saint. Sometimes morally grey characters are great fun, and had either Anne or Teach’s inner demons been played up to match the rather delicious title, I think the book would have been much more entertaining.

This is also supposed to be a work of historical romance fiction, so the modern-sounding dialogue and relatively modern attitudes (overt racism and sometimes sexism aside) bothered me as well. The dialogue was stilted anyway, but it just rang false throughout. Instead of sounding genuine and organic, it sounded like someone trying too hard to make the characters sound not-quite-modern. Worse, though, was how…vague everything was.

Blackbeard would’ve been a teenager in the mid-to-late 1690s, which had markedly different fashions from, say, the 1760s or the 1810s, but you’d never know it from reading this book. The dresses are described by their color (if at all); there’s a single mention of a “floppy hat” and another of a “powdered wig.” And not to belabor the point, but tallships such as Blackbeard’s own Queen Anne’s Revenge–and, in this book, Drummond’s famed Deliverance–were not the same in 1700, the beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy, as they were in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars, the height of British Naval power. But are they even once described for readers in any kind of detail? No! This book could be set in pretty much any year between 1690 and 1820, and that’s a problem. If the characters must be bland cardboard cutouts, couldn’t the setting be established properly?

Oh Luthien, stop being so hard on this poor YA romance, you might be thinking.

Okay, but Ms. Castroman claims to be “a self-diagnosed history nerd [who’s] not afraid to admit it.” (Good for you! Do you want a cookie? I spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree in that shit, ma’am. Consider yourself out-nerded.) She claims to have done her research. But it doesn’t show, not even a little bit. That’s what bothers me more than anything.

There’s good, solid YA historical fiction out there, which leads me to believe that some authors should just stick to contemporary if they can’t be bothered to put in a real effort and do the thing right.

Castroman also claims that Anne was inspired by the name of Blackbeard’s flagship, but Blackbeard’s piratical career likely began during the reign of Queen Anne of England (1707-1714); Blackbeard also possibly served in the Royal Navy during Queen Anne’s War. Not saying authors aren’t allowed to be creative and imaginative, but, again…she claims to have done her research!

And speaking of being condescended to, there’s he rest of her Author’s Note:

It’s believed Blackbeard was educated, because he could read and write.

Uh, no, that’s proof that he was educated in some way.

That meant he had to come from a wealthy family, because only the prosperous could afford tutors or any kind of schooling…

You know who didn’t come from a wealthy family? Oh yeah. William Shakespeare.

At leat she got this bit right:

Despite reports of [Blackbeard’s] cruelty, there are no reports of his having killed anyone until the last battle that eventually took his life. Unlike other pirates at the time, he didn’t torture his victims for fun. [“Other pirates”…citation needed!] I don’t mean to imply he was a good person. He wasn’t, [how do you know?] but many of the rumors surrounding him were exaggerated because of the demonic appearance he himself tried so hard to cultivate. [Fun fact: pirates frequently relied on fear tactics to avoid actual violence/bloodshed!]

So I’ll end this review with a few recommendations before it gets too bitter snarky. If you want to know more about historical piracy in the Atlantic and the Caribbean during Blackbeard’s era, I suggest looking into the excellent Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker–it is a bit romanticized, but still an entertaining and valuable read. And if fiction’s more your thing, I also love The Sweet Trade by Elizabeth Garrett, a fictionalized account of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the most famous female pirates. It’s a romance, sure, but far less deceptively so than this drivel.

I doubt I’ll pick up the planned sequel, Blacksouls, because Castroman just doesn’t have the literary chops to write a swashbuckling tale of love and revenge and because, despite knowing the notoriety and adventure that may lie in store for them, Anne and Teach bored me to tear once. Fool me once, shame on you–fool me twice…

And since my review was sort of trash, here’s another that I found both amusing and accurate, if you’re interested!

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