I’ll be honest, I really wanted to like this one. Swashbuckling pirates, destinies to chase, coming-of-age, and treasures to find. It was honestly the perfect setup for a super fun pirate book. However, it just didn’t hit the mark for me. Thanks to Fierce Reads for gifting me a copy of this book.
1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.
But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.
Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.
In many ways, this book has all the things I’m looking for in a really good pirate story. It has adventures to mysterious lands, pirates with quirky personalities, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of coming-to-age and understanding that your parents aren’t always the superheroes. It has everything and even buried treasure to be found with an encrypted map that only a handful of people could actually understand. It had the potential to be a phenomenal story, but I think I came away from this book really wanting more.
Much of the story felt like a historical YA story rather than a historical pirate story. The focus was more on Xiang, her life, her upbringing, the people around her, and her mysterious father. She wears a pendant she was told was a token from her father before he passed, but that’s pretty much all she knew about him. The beginning shares her sheltered life. She lives in a super small village with her caretakers and her mentor. The only exploration she knows is what she’s traveled through town and in the books she reads.
Then one day, she asks her mother to take her to Canton to see what the rest of the world looks like. While she’s there, she meets Anh who steals her pendant and reveals to her that the pendant actually had something hidden inside of it; a treasure map to one of the most famous pirate’s buried riches.
In a desperate attempt to make Xiang’s mother proud of her (and avoid the marriage proposals her mother keeps pushing on her), Xiang leaves with Anh and her family’s ship to set sail for a world of exploration, daring adventures, and finding out more about the treasure map she found.
From that point on, the story has so many twists and turns. The drama in Xiang’s life is so unreal and with each new surprise, I was drawn to finding out more. I wish I can talk about them here, but I might give too much away. But be prepared to find how much Xiang’s family has been keeping from her.
I also really loved the characters in this book. The entire crew on Captain Hoa’s ship were all interesting characters that I wish had more time to learn about them. I wanted to know so much about each of the characters and how they make up this beautiful found family. Xiang and Anh’s relationship also deepens as they get to know each other. Xiang learns to fight, the importance of working hard, and discovers a lot about her past that’s been kept hidden from her. Honestly, I was so surprised with all the reveals that kept rolling in.
The pacing in this story felt a little out of sorts. At first, it was slow-paced, which I liked. I felt like I was getting into a seriously big story with tons of adventure and action, but then the second half of the book seemed to rush focusing less on the treasure and more on the drama. I think if I had set my expectations a little differently when I started the book then I would have enjoyed it more than I did.
Overall, it was a fun adventure story filled with a lot of learnings, surprises, and pirate-y action. While it wasn’t my favorite, I know many folks out there will really love this one.