The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar

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Published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020.

The Ship of Shadows is a vividly imagined pirate adventure, bursting with magic and mystery.

Aleja longs for adventure. Frustratingly, her grandmother is of the opinion that “nice young girls don’t go chasing after adventure.” Juan, the local bully, jeers “girls can’t be explorers. Female explorers don’t exist.” Imagine then Aleja’s delight when she finds herself on board the legendary Ship of Shadows – a ship crewed entirely by women! I really enjoyed reading a book where the main cast was completely made up of female characters; it made such a refreshing change. They are brave and fearless, each able to keep their head under pressure and their wits about them in times of danger. Each has a different special talent be it navigation, invention or languages. Between them they crew and sail the boat with expertise, fixing it after battle and navigating it through danger. 

Aleja certainly finds the adventure she’s been craving. The crew are on a dangerous mission, the precise details of which they initially keep secret from Aleja. On their quest they defeat a kraken and desert beasts, are chased by pirate hunters and pursued by an army of skeletons. There’s a lost city and magical objects to find.

What really struck me about the book were the wonderful descriptions. Much of the story takes place in North Africa, in Tangier and Marrakesh. Maria Kuzniar brings these exotic cities to life: the spice-scented air, the hustle and bustle of market stalls, the bright, rich colours and the spectacular architecture. Then there are the detailed descriptions of life on board a ship, and the sights and smells of the busy ports they dock at. 

The vividly imagined, fantastical scenes below decks were also particularly enjoyable to read. The Ship of Shadows is a story laced with magic; the ship itself runs on it. The legends and rumours that are whispered around the world about the ship actually serve to feed its magic. There are even new rooms that have been conjured to life because of rumours. The lower decks especially are thick with enchantment: phosphorescent waterfalls, jungles that sprout up overnight, and storms inside jars. And then there are the shape-shifting shadows that lurk on board.

I also really loved the obvious reverence for books running throughout the story. There are two spectacular libraries described in the book – the library in Seville which Aleja often visits, and the glorious library on board the ship. Prior to her adventures on board the Ship of Shadows, books were what allowed Aleja to travel to distant lands and explore worlds different to her own. They are what fed her dreams of travel and taught her the many languages she has come to master. Books are seen as powerful – portrayed as holding answers and the keys to secrets.

The themes of friendship, family and loyalty are strong. The message of being true to yourself and following your destiny is also key. On the ship, Aleja finds her place and her people. She can be the girl she’s always dreamed of being.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing me with an electronic version of this book via NetGalley.

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