Nathan’s Review of Son of a Sailor by Marshall J. Moore
Publication Date: 25 May 2023
Genre: Cozy Fantasy
A pirate tale about home and the family you make for yourself.
Captain Redbeard is the most wanted pirate ever to sail the Eight Seas. But to the folk of his sleepy island hometown, Captain Redbeard is no more than a distant legend. To them, he’s just Quint Thatch – the tavernkeepers’ son.
When tragic news calls him home, Quint hides his pirate identity (and loses his beard) to reconnect with his formidable Ma and childhood friends. As he processes his grief, Quint learns that the bonds of home are as strong as those tying him to his crewmates.
But when Quint’s pirate crew and a ghost from his past sail into town, both halves of his life are thrown into jeopardy. Will he have to choose between his home and his crew, or can Quint find a way to reconcile the two sides of his identity and save them both?
Review for Son of a Sailor
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
Son of a Sailor is a cozy fantasy novel about a pirate captain who returns home upon the death of his father. There he encounters old friends, a quirky mermaid, a doting mother, and the navy who is trying to capture him. In many ways this book has it all – it is sunny and breezy, making you feel like you are on an island in the Carribean. There are some fun characters and nothing bad ever happens. On the surface, Son of a Sailor seems like a perfect entry into the cozy fantasy genre.
Now, I usually don’t like to leave negative reviews on books. And I want to make clear that Son of a Sailor is not inherently a bad book, but I also think that it engages in many, many of the issues with cozy fantasy as a subgenre. This book felt more like it was engineered to capture the zeitgeist – to latch onto cozy fantasy as one of the “it” trends in SFF publishing – rather than feeling like it emerged from a truly meaningful and passionate source. This might not be the case at all, but I read cozy fantasy for the feelings. Whether it is the serene calm of Legends and Lattes, the warm hug to get us through the hard times of Gam Gam, the empowering Light from Uncommon Stars, or the melancholic musings of Bard City Blues, cozy fantasy is about the emotions it swells up deep within you. Son of a Sailor didn’t do that; I never felt emotionally connected to any of the characters.
A big part of this is because this book simultaneously had way too much going on and not enough going on. The closest comparison regarding plot structure I can make is Tom Sawyer. The chapters in this book are relatively episodic while also sometimes returning to the storyline established in an earlier chapter. Obviously with the success of Tom Sawyer (and many other slice of life books) this can be a successful way of telling a story, but I’m not sure Moore pulls it off here. There isn’t enough conflict (even the low-stakes conflict often found in cozy fantasy) to engage the reader. The individual chapters are much too mundane, and anything resembling a conflict (like the approaching Navy coming for our protagonist pirate captain) are resolved too quickly and conveniently for there to be any emotional stakes.
There are several wonderful side characters populating Son of a Sailor. The mermaid in particular is an absolute hoot, and I would read a spinoff tale about her immediately. There is also a young boy who latches himself onto our main hero, Redbeard, who is cute and fun. I just wish that Redbeard himself had the same level of humor or depth. Redbeard is not an interesting enough character to justify spend 300 pages with. His only real character trait is his complicated relationship with his dad, but Moore doesn’t dive deep into that relationship enough. Redbeard kind of just accepts everything that happens to him without careful reflection, and so he lacks the character heft needed to really carry the story.
Back when I first read Legends and Lattes I really enjoyed it, but I was a bit confused about how everyone was pushing forward the idea that the book was somehow “Hugo Award worthy”. I thought it was nice and all, but was it really worth that much hype? Now that I have read more cozy fantasy like Son of a Sailor, I think I see how strong Legends and Lattes really was. It is hard to write a novel with minimal conflict, low stakes, and little plot and keep it interesting. Baldree was able to make that balance while Moore stumbles here. Again, I’m not sure if Moore just pushed this story out the door too quickly or if this was just a bit of a miss at a first attempt at a cozy fantasy.
I’ll just bring up on more thing before I conclude this review. I think that cozy fantasies need to take a step back and really examine what larger social issues they are trying to make “feel good”. This conversation has been had related to Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea and his use of the Sixties Scoop to create a cozy tale, but I still see problematic things in over cozy fantasies. Moore does this as well in Son of a Sailor. He brings up colonialism and empire (and essentially eradicating the local indigenous peoples of the island, although that is never explicitly stated) and also some of the heinous things the pirates have done in their past (one off hand comments remarks of people who were severely injured due to the ineptitude of two of the pirate characters). Moore seems to hand-wave off the stuff about indigenous rights and colonialism (Redbeard literally states that there is nothing he can do about it, so why bother) and the latter is handled as a joke. There are ways to write cozy fantasies that don’t trivialize or minimize larger social ills, but Moore doesn’t seem to do that here. These also felt like unforced errors because neither of them needed to be included in the first place. Authors looking to writing cozy fantasies need to make sure they are being reflective on their own works, and what they are trying to make warm and fuzzy.
I know this was a pretty negative review, and I’ll reiterate that the book wasn’t horrible. I just think cozy fantasy is finally at the point where it is mature enough to have confronted some of the issues Moore runs into here. If you are a cozy fantasy die-hard and have read everything else, pick up Son of a Sailor and make an opinion for yourself. Otherwise, there are much stronger cozy fantasies out there that are worth your time more.
Concluding Thoughts: A cozy fantasy that is more meandering than feel-good, Son of a Sailor lacks the emotional depth to really work as a “slice-of-life” book. It is more boring than endearing, with a bland main character, no plot tension, and some problematic concepts hidden just beneath the surface. Some of the side characters are really fun, including the awesome mermaid character, but overall this is not a cozy fantasy that you should be running out the door for.
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