So my first introduction to Cinrak came in the form of “The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars” (which appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252). And okay, a queer capybara pirate was a bit strange to run into, even at a SFF publication, but I was also almost immediately charmed. Anthropomorphic animals speak to the part of my heart that is a secret furry and I loved the adventure, the movement, the sense of a larger world and story. And here, finally, I get to find more of it. Not all of it, mind. The collection is not a linear novel but a mosaic one that checks in with Cinrak throughout her career, giving enough of the big events to capture a sense of scale and scope and continuity, but leaving enough unsaid that there’s still very much a sense that the myth and legend of Cinrak stretches much much farther, covering adventures that we’re only left hoping are covered in another collection some day.
|Art by Dian Huynh
At the heart of the collection for me, though, is a really touching story about acceptance and found family. Cinrak grows up in a rather restrictive, conservative religious place, always looking beyond, always yearning for the sea. For the pirate’s life, which seems to glamorous. What she finds when she goes to enter into that world isn’t exactly a warm welcome...except it also is. More than anything for me the story highlights the importance of people practicing kindness and compassion to try and make systems and situations better. People using their influence and their power not exactly unselfishly--that wouldn’t really be in keeping with a pirate’s sights. But rather that they discover that helping others is almost always the best way to get what they want. That, if what they wants requires them to hurt someone, it means that they don’t really want it anyway, that they didn’t understand what exactly they wanted. And that through patience and cooperation they can figure out a better way, one where everybody wins.
And that is the promise that the collection lives up to, for me. It’s fun and it’s brash and it’s poignant at times. But it definitely believes that there is a way forward where everyone wins. And it’s that optimism in the face of the cold cruelty of the world at times that I find so important. Not that no one ever loses. Not that tragedy and sadness don’t happen. But neither are they inevitable or the result of hope, the punishment for hope. Hope, rather, is the fuel by which Cinrak and her friends and her family are able to carve out a space not just for themselves, but for everybody who wants to sail upon the seas, who wants to find safety or adventure or fulfillment. It’s not enough on its own, but hope is vital for the work, the years and years of work they all put in to build something beautiful and affirming and powerful--a cooperative, a union, a family.
And the character work is amazing, Cinrak herself is so much fun and her lovers are a delight. Her crew is diverse and eager, and she joins a generational effort, not losing sight of the historical progress that’s been done and is ongoing in the rush to have new gains and fresh challenges. And it’s a work that I guess I didn’t realize I was ravenous for, as I tore through the book in a single sitting. It’s just so much fun! The introduction touches a bit on the idea of queer joy, and this story does indeed build a world where joy wins. Where love wins. And as much as that can feel like an escape at times, as much as (given current and recent events) that is cast as irresponsible by those who loudly wave the finger of “this is serious” at anything that seems too happy and too fun, I don’t feel that it is. Rather, I feel that the collection does a great job of layering, of being a hope not to tell people they don’t need to work or to fight, but be that fuel to readers. To carry that fight further, reminding always that cynicism is no path forward.
As a collection and mosaic novel, the individual pieces weave in a building and rather graceful fashion, episodic in how they stop in on Cinrak’s adventures but also fitting together into a whole that is satisfying and interesting. Cinrak’s journey starts as just a step out her door, but closes on the stars and the greater universe, each story widening and widening the scope of her actions. Bridging distances first between rival nations and organizations, then between very different people from different parts of the world and, finally, escaping the planet itself to help people find connections and heal wounds that stretch across the night skies. She’s an inheritor (one of many) of a legacy of protecting and nurturing people regardless of who they are or how they love. And the family she builds is queer and beautiful, full of people rich in love and magic and a vision of a more connected and kind world, one that loses none of its adventure or fun along the way.