The Badass Lady Pirates of History

Not-so-recently (in 2005 in fact), a racist asshat sent a letter to fantasy author Scott Lynch, offended that he had included a black, female, mother-of-two as a competent pirate in the second of his Gentleman Bastard books, Red Seas under Red Skies. To see Lynch give the writer of a letter a smackdown, please go here. It recently was picked up on Tumblr and has made the rounds.

Still here? Cool. Firstly, applause to Scott Lynch.

I wanted to reply to the section where said asshat states:

Real sea pirates could not be controlled by women, they were vicous rapits [sic] and murderers and I am sorry to say it was a man’s world. It is unrealistic wish fulfilment [sic] for you and your readers to have so many female pirates, especially if you want to be politically correct about it!”

I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a bit of information about the real, historical, badass lady pirates, many of whom where not white.

1. Ching Shih or Cheng I Sao

ching_shih
Not actually her, obv

This was one badass lady pirate. You can listen to a podcast about her here, which is where I first learned about her. “A brilliant Cantonese pirate, she commanded 1800 ships and more than 80,000 pirates — men, women, and even children. She challenged the world superpower empires at the time such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia’s strongest pirates, and one of world history’s most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy.” You can get a brief overview of her life on Wikipedia, the source of the quote.

And yeah, she was so badass that governments paid her a lot of money to stop pirating.”The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule could not be defeated — not by Qing dynasty Chinese officials, not by the Portuguese navy, not by the British. But in 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates, and Ching Shih took advantage of it. She ended her career in 1810, accepting an amnesty offer from the Chinese government. She kept her loot, married her lieutenant and adoptive son Cheung Po Tsai, and opened a gambling house” (Wikipedia). And hey, look, she was a mother, too! Although married him, which is a bit weird.

Basically her motto was: “Can’t touch this.”

2. Alfhild

According to the Gesta Danorum (book 7), Alfhid was super hot, and so her dad put her in a bedroom guarded by snakes so no one tried to use their one-eyed snake on her. Alf was not deterred by this, and impales the snakes with red-hot pokers to get to Alfhild.

See those snakes? They dead.
See those snakes? They dead.

Alf was all “so, where’s my sexeh new bride?” but Alfhid’s mum was like “I dunno about this dude” and so “Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane; whereupon she exchanged woman’s for man’s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover” (source: Gesta Danorum book 7).

Alfhild goes off and does pirate lady things like raiding the coasts of the Baltic Sea with other pirate ladies, and Alf pursues her.

Lady pirates doing piratey things
Lady pirates doing piratey things

The Danes, led my Alf, started fighting these pirates, though they were “wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily beauty and such supple limbs.” Alf knocks off Alfhild’s helmet and sees she’s the hot lady she wants to marry, and she decided she’d pillaged enough and became queen instead.

3. Jeanne de Clisson aka the Lionness of Brittany

I don't think this is actually her, but it's how I imagine her
This isn’t actually her

Jean-Louise was married at 12 but her first husband died. She married a second time, and this was for love. But her husband, Olivier III de Clisson, was beheaded for treason.

Jeanne de Clisson’s reaction? OH HELL NAW.

She swore revenge on the king, sold off her possessions, bought three warships, and became a badass lady pirate.

“The ships that Clisson purchased were painted all black on her command, and the sails dyed red. The ‘Black Fleet’ took to the waters and began hunting down and destroying the ships of King Philip VI, and were merciless with the crews. But Clisson would always leave two or three of Philip’s sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the “Lioness of Brittany” had struck once again. Jeanne and her fleet also assisted in keeping the English Channel free of French warships, and it is very likely that as a privateer she had a hand in keeping supplies available to the English forces for the Battle of Crécy in 1346. When King Philip VI died in 1350, it was not the end to Jeanne’s revenge. She continued to wreak havoc among French shipping, and it was reported that she took particular joy in hunting down and capturing the ships of French noblemen, as long as they were aboard. She would then personally behead the aristocrats with an axe, tossing their lifeless bodies overboard” (Wikipedia).

After 13 years of piracy, her anger finally abated and she hid in England and married again. Also? She had seven kids between her first two husbands. SEVEN.

4. Anne Bonney & Mary Read

Mary-Read-AnneBonny2Anne abandoned her husband when she fell for the pirate Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham and they went about as pirates together. She had a baby and left it with friends in the Caribbean so she could go back to pirating. Not the mothering type.

She soon partnered with Mary Read, who for many years disguised herself as a boy. She fell in love with another sailor and told him her true sex and they bought an inn together, but then he died. She went back on the ships as a boy and fell into Anne Bonney’s company. They both had reputations for being badass and bloodthirsty, even more so than the men.

One day they were overwhelmed by the British Navy, and the men went below deck and hid, either because they were too drunk or cowardly. Anne and Mary fought them off as long as they could.

“Captain Jack and the male members of his crew were tried on November 16, 1720, and were sentenced to hang. Anne was allowed to visit her lover in his cell before his execution, and instead of the consoling, loving words he was undoubtedly expecting, her scathing comments live on throughout history: “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Anne and Mary were tried one week after Rackham’s death and were also found guilty. But at their sentencing, when asked by the judge if they had anything to say, they replied, “Mi’lord, we plead our bellies.” Both were pregnant, and since British law forbade killing an unborn child, their sentences were stayed temporarily.

Mary is said to have died of a violent fever in the Spanish Town prison in 1721, before the birth of her child. Other reports say she feigned death and was sneaked out of the prison under a shroud.

No record of Anne’s execution has ever been found. Some say that her wealthy father bought her release after the birth of her child and she settled down to a quiet family life on a small Caribbean island. Others believe that she lived out her life in the south of England, owning a tavern where she regaled the locals with tales of her exploits.

And yet others say Anne and Mary moved to Louisiana where they raised their children together and were friends to the ends of their lives.” (Source: The Legend of Anne & Mary)

5. Sayyida al Hurra

sayiddaSayyid was an Islamic pirate queen of the 16th century.

“Perhaps because of the memory of being forced to flee her home in childhood, Sayyida, like many other Muslims in the area, turned to piracy against her Christian enemy. She reached out to Barbarossa of Algiers, who controlled the eastern Mediterranean Sea while she controlled the west, and assembled her own fleet. She wreaked havoc on Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines, and was the undisputed leader of the pirates in the region.”

Later, she remarried the King of Morocco. But she wanted to let him know who was boss, and “to show that she had no intention of giving up her power and position, she refused to leave Tétouan for the marriage, forcing the king to come to her. This is the only time in Moroccan history that a king married away from the capital.” (Source: Amazing Women in History)

Eventually, her son (yet another pirate mother!) overthrew her, and people don’t know what happened to her after that.

So there you go. Plenty of awesome lady pirates were able to wrangle both other male pirates and have babies and do whatever they wanted. So, booyah to your sexist preconceptions, Mr. Asshat.

Further reading:

  • Cordingly, David Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives
  • Druett, Joan (2000) She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. Simon & Schuster
  • Lorimer, Sara (2002) Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas. Chronicle Books

If you haven’t read Scott Lynch, you should pick up his books, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, which are some of the best books in the fantasy genre.

For another sassy lady pirate, try reading The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke.

So Many Books, so Little Time

I’m drowning in books I want to read. But as I’m ploughing through my draft as quickly as I can manage, I’ve had less time to read. But here’s the stuff I’m currently trying to make time for. All product descriptions are ganked from Amazon.

1. My friends’ books. I’ve a bunch of talented friends. Here’s a few I need to get through sooner rather than later. I’ve got a lot more friend’s books to get through, but here’s a sample of ones I’ve bought lately.

The Alchemist of SoulsAnne Lyle

Summary:When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal Catlyn his soul.

Why I’ll read it: This book ticks so many of my literary boxes: alternate humans with an alien culture, Elizabethan setting, psychic powers, swashbuckling, spies, a girl dressed as a boy, and a theatre setting. Yes, please. I’ve beta-read the sequel MS, so it’ll be really interesting to see how the early strings fit together, as I never read series out of order.

AngelmakerNick Harkaway

Summary: From the acclaimed author of The Gone-Away World – a new riveting action spy thriller, blistering gangster noir, and howling absurdist comedy: a propulsively entertaining tale about a mobster’s son and a retired secret agent who are forced to team up to save the world.

All Joe Spork wants is a quiet life. He repairs clockwork and lives above his shop in a wet, unknown bit of London. The bills don’t always get paid and he’s single and has no prospects of improving his lot, but at least he’s not trying to compete with the reputation of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, his infamous criminal dad.

Edie Banister lives quietly and wishes she didn’t. She’s nearly ninety and remembers when she wasn’t. She’s a former superspy and now she’s… well… old. Worse yet, the things she fought to save don’t seem to exist anymore, and she’s beginning to wonder if they ever did.

When Joe fixes one particularly unusual device, his life is suddenly upended. The client? Unknown. And the device? It’s a 1950s doomsday machine. And having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the government and a diabolical South Asian dictator, Edie’s old arch-nemesis. With Joe’s once-quiet world now populated with mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realises that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she gave up years ago, and pick up his father’s old gun…

Why I’ll read it: It has clockwork bees! Sold. Sounds almost like a contemporary steampunk spy thriller with an old lady. Awesome. And even if I hadn’t met the charming Harkaway at Eastercon this year, this amazing review by Patrick Ness would have sold me as well, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

The TestimonyJames Smythe

Summary: A global thriller presenting an apocalyptic vision of a world on the brink of despair and destruction.

What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words ‘MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID’?

Would you turn to God? Declare it an act of terrorism? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?

The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn’t.

The Testimony – a gripping story of the world brought to its knees and of its people, confused and afraid.

Why I’ll read it: The book is told from a global perspective, flipping between peoples’ different testimonies, with some appearing more than others. I find that a really intriguing concept and want to see how it works. Plus, it sounds damn cool.

Also, I couldn’t mess with the visual symmetry of 3 books in each category or it’d drive me batty, but an honourary 4th shout-out to The Rising by Will Hill, the sequel to the best-selling Department 19, which I plan to buy.

2. Books by People I Don’t Know. 

Indigo SpringsA. M. Dellamonica

Summary: Indigo Springs is a sleepy town where things seem pretty normal . . . until Astrid’s father dies and she moves into his house. She discovers that for many years her father had been accessing the magic that flowed, literally, in a blue stream beneath the earth, leaking into his house. When she starts to use the liquid “vitagua” to enchant everyday items, the results seem innocent enough: a “’chanted” watch becomes a charm that means you’re always in the right place at the right time; a “’chanted” pendant enables the wearer to convince anyone of anything . . .

But as events in Indigo Springs unfold and the true potential of vitagua is revealed, Astrid and her friends unwittingly embark on a journey fraught with power, change, and a future too devastating to contemplate. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends as Astrid discovers secrets from her shrouded childhood that will lead her to a destiny stranger than she could have imagined . . .

Why I’ll read it: A.M. Dellamonica has been making the blog rounds recently with her upcoming sequel, Blue Magic. I really enjoyed her discussions of gender in this article especially. I’m interested by the idea of “ecofantasy,” and Dellamonica looks like she’s experimenting with form. Very excited to read this book and its sequel.

City of DragonsRobin Hobb

Summary: Once, dragons ruled the Rain Wilds, tended by privileged human servants known as Elderlings. But a series of cataclysmic eruptions nearly drove these magnificent creatures to extinction. Born weak and deformed, the last of their kind had one hope for survival: to return to their ancient city of Kelsingra. Accompanied by a disparate crew of untested young keepers, the dragons embarked on a harsh journey into the unknown along the toxic Rain Wild River. Battling starvation, a hostile climate, and treacherous enemies, dragons and humans began to forge magical connections, bonds that have wrought astonishing transformations for them all. And though Kelsingra is finally near, their odyssey has only begun.

Because of the swollen waters of the Rain Wild River, the lost city can be reached only by flight—a test of endurance and skill beyond the stunted dragons’ strength. Venturing across the swift-running river in tiny boats, the dragon scholar Alise and a handful of keepers discover a world far different from anything they have ever known or imagined. Immense, ornate structures of black stone veined with silver and lifelike stone statues line the silent, eerily empty streets. Yet what are the whispers they hear, the shadows of voices and bursts of light that flutter and are gone? And why do they feel as if eyes are watching them?

The dragons must plumb the depths of their ancestral memories to help them take flight and unlock the secrets buried in Kelsingra. But enemies driven by greed and dark desires are approaching. Time is running out, not only for the dragons but for their human keepers as well.

Why I’ll read it: If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Hobb fangirl. Her books are one of the biggest influences of my writing and I just love sinking into the worlds she creates. I probably won’t get to this one for awhile, as I’m currently re-reading the Tawny Man trilogy and will want to re-read The Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven as well. 2012 is my year of reading a lot of Hobb, it seems!

FleshmarketNicola Morgan

Summary: Fleshmarket is set in the 1820s in Edinburgh, a city of cruel contrasts between the lives of the rich and poor, and home to the infamous Burke and Hare, who sold their murder victims to brilliant anatomist Dr Robert Knox. This is the often harrowing story of a boy who must survive the pain of his mother’s death at the hands of Doctor Knox.

Why I’ll read it: Burke and Hare is featuring obliquely in an upcoming novel of mine, so it’s technically research. But I’ve also seen Nicola Morgan’s articles floating about the internet, and it looks like an excellent, interesting read.

3. Non-fiction Books.

Prague in Black and Gold – Peter Demetz

Summary: From the Velvet Revolution to the disturbing world of Franz Kafka, from the devastation of the Thirty Years War to the musical elegance of Mozart and Dvorak, Prague is steeped in a wealth of history and culture. “Prague In Black And Gold” is a first class history of this unique city, allowing us to unravel layer upon layer of startlingly symbolic sites and buildings to reveal the real Prague. ‘”Prague In Black And Gold” is an exceptional work – and exceptionally reliable …I am sure that this will be an important and exciting guide for all who wish to learn more about the famous people and important events in the history of the Czech lands and their capital’.

Why I’ll read it: Research for a book I’m outlining that will most likely be set in Prague. Looks like I’ll have to visit Prague at some point as well–the trials of being a writer, honestly. ;)

Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Summary: It’s the twenty-first century, and although we tried to rear unisex children—boys who play with dolls and girls who like trucks—we failed. Even though the glass ceiling is cracked, most women stay comfortably beneath it. And everywhere we hear about vitally important “hardwired” differences between male and female brains. The neuroscience that we read about in magazines, newspaper articles, books, and sometimes even scientific journals increasingly tells a tale of two brains, and the result is more often than not a validation of the status quo. Women, it seems, are just too intuitive for math; men too focused for housework.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars. She then goes one step further, offering a very different explanation of the dissimilarities between men’s and women’s behavior. Instead of a “male brain” and a “female brain,” Fine gives us a glimpse of plastic, mutable minds that are continuously influenced by cultural assumptions about gender.

Passionately argued and unfailingly astute, Delusions of Gender provides us with a much-needed corrective to the belief that men’s and women’s brains are intrinsically different—a belief that, as Fine shows with insight and humor, all too often works to the detriment of ourselves and our society.

Why I’ll read it: I’m extremely interested in gender studies, and my friend Lorna recommended this to me.

Ghosts, Apparitions and Poltergeists: An Exploration of the Supernatural through History – Brian Righi

Summary:

Skeletal remains rotting behind cellar walls, temple priests removing brains with iron hooks, phantom locomotives roaring across midnight plains—Brian Righi isn’t making this stuff up. The ghost stories he finds in history are far more chilling than any Hollywood horror scene.

Join the seasoned paranormal investigator on a tour through mankind’s millennium-old obsession with death and the afterlife. Ghosts, Apparitions and Poltergeistssurveys 4,000 years of hauntings and ghost huntings—from the embalming rituals of ancient Egypt to the Ouija boards and séances of nineteenth century Spiritualism—highlighting a few outlandish tales and colorful characters along the way.

Why I’ll Read it: A bit of research for the WIP and for another book I’m planning. I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts, even though I’m a skeptic at heart.

 

Random Research: Stuff you Missed in History Class (Part 3)

Image via American Studies at the University of Virginia.

1. A Brief History of Vaudeville – Vaudeville flourished from the late 19th century into the Depression era. It was one of America’s most famous forms of entertainment at the time. Tune in as Katie and Sarah take a look at this family-friendly variety show from America’s bygone days.

2. 10 Notable Vaudevillians - In a follow-up to the earlier episode on the history of vaudeville, Katie and Sarah take a closer look at some of the most memorable vaudevillians. Listen in and learn more about everyone from the Marx brothers to Winsor McCay in this episode.

3. Who Was the Real Bluebeard? – “Bluebeard” is one of Charles Perrault’s most disturbing and grisly stories — but could it be true? Join Sarah and Katie as they explore the depraved life and crimes of Gilles de Rais, the real-life basis for Perrault’s Bluebeard.

4. Wallice Simpson and the Abdication Crises – In 1936, Britain’s King Edward VIII renounced his throne in order to marry an American socialite named Wallice Simpson. Join Katie and Sarah as the explore the astonishing story behind Britain’s only royal resignation.

5. How the Hearst Castle Worked – When newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst grew weary of camping, he asked Julia Morgan to build a ‘small bungalow’ in San Simeon, California. More than 20 years later, the gigantic Hearst Castle remains one of the most opulent homes in North America.

6. The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst – In 1974, publishing heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Originally a hostage, Hearst eventually became a member of the SLA, participating in at least two robberies.

7. The Real Citizen Kane – Critics around the world agree that Citizen Kane is one of history’s best films — but who was the basis of this story?

8. What Was Saturnalia? – Winter solstice celebrations predate Christmas, and trace back into antiquity. Saturnalia was one of these ancient traditions, and it was very different from the celebration we recognize as Christmas today.

9. The Virgin Queen’s Great Love – Elizabeth I never married. Instead, she encouraged (and avoided) many suitors without making a commitment. Additionally, many people believed Elizabeth was in love with a man named Robert Dudley.

10. Elizabeth the First, Before She Was Queen – As the only child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was born into a world of privilege and danger. Learn more about the tumultuous life of Elizabeth I before she became the Queen of England in this episode.

 

Random Research: Stuff You Missed in History Class (Part 2)

Here are some other podcasts I’ve been listening to lately:

1.Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim – Queen Victoria loved two men: Prince Albert, and after his death, her servant, John Brown. Late in life, the Queen had a third partner, a Muslim man named Abdul Karim. So why did Victoria’s children want the records of this relationship destroyed?

2. Don’t Cross the Dragon Lady – When people think of pirates, they usually picture male, western scoundrels flouting the law throughout the Caribbean. However, piracy is not a solely western pursuit. Listen in as Deblina and Sarah recount the exploits of pirates in the South China Sea.

3. The Last Emperor of Ethiopia – Haile Selassie wasn’t just the last emperor of Ethiopia — he is also hailed as a messiah. In this episode, Deblina and Sarah explore the astonishing life of Haile Selassie.

4. The Affair of Poisons – From hemlock to cyanide, poison has unfortunately played an integral part in many of history’s great sagas, But in 17th-century France, the scandal over poisoning reached an unprecedented level. Tune in and learn more.

5. Hone Heke’s Rebellion – Also known as the Northern War, Hone Heke’s Rebellion took place between in New Zealand over the course of 1845 and 1846. In this podcast, Sarah and Deblina recount the events leading up to the war — as well as the consequences of Heke’s actions.

6. Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise – Tycho Brahe is hailed as an influential astronomer, but why? Tune in and learn how this groundbreaking astronomer lost his nose, built the world’s first observatory and met with an untimely demise in this podcast.

7. Who Was the Real Sherlock Holmes? – Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t the first person to write a mystery novel, but his focus on scientific methods and brilliant protagonist made the stories of Sherlock Holmes world-famous. Yet is Sherlock Holmes based on a real person?

8. The Cinderella of the Harem – Roxelana has one of the strangest rags-to-riches stories in history. As a slave who entered Suleyman’s harem and rose through the ranks to become the wife of the Sultan, Roxelana became a symbol of the Ottoman empire.

9. He was Killed by Mesmerism – Today, Franz Mesmer is hailed as the father of hypnosis. His original pursuit was called mesmerism, but what exactly was it? How did it (supposedly) work?

10. Spring-Heeled Jack, Mystery Assailant! – Most people are familiar with Jack the Ripper, but Victorian England was also plagued by an odd character named Spring-Heeled Jack. Were reports of this bounding scoundrel a symptom of mass hysteria, or something factual?

Random Research: Stuff You Missed in History Class (Part 1)

The Fox Sisters

I’ve been on a history podcast kick lately, and I’m a huge fan of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which I usually listen to via Castroller. Most of the ones I listened to are hosted by Sarah Dowdey and Deblina Chakraborty.

So, below in no particular order, are a few I’ve been listening to lately. Some are directly related to books I’m writing, but plenty are topics I’m interested in or knew shockingly little about. I’ll occasionally make posts listing 10 or so podcasts.

1. The Fairy Tale Life of Hans Christian Andersen

2. H.H. Holmes and the Mystery of Murder Castle, Part 1

3. H.H. Holmes and the Mystery of Murder Castle, Part 2

4. Secret Science: Alchemy!

5. The Sisters Fox: They Talked to Dead People

6. Who Was the Mistress of Murder Hill?

7. The Radium Girls

8. Victoria and Albert

9. Civil War Spies: Allan Pinkerton

10. Princess Caraboo: Imposter from Javasu

Random Research: The Giant Circus Book

For this week, I’m sharing the book that has been wickedly helpful for my book set in a circus.

The Circus Book - Linda Granfield et al (Taschen, 2010)

Product Description from Amazon:

During its heyday, the American circus was the largest show-biz industry the world had ever seen. From the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, traveling American circuses performed for audiences of up to 14,000 per show and crisscrossed the country on 20,000 miles of railroad in one season alone. The spectacle of death-defying daredevils and strapping super-heroes gripped the American imagination, outshining theater, comedy, and minstrel shows of the day, and ultimately paving the way for film and television. The circus offered young Americans the dream of adventure and reinvention. This book brings to life the grit and glamour of the circus phenomenon. Images include photographic gems by early circus photographers Frederick Whitman Glasier and Edward Kelty, many of the earliest color photographs ever taken of the circus from the 1940s and 1950s, iconic circus photographs by Mathew Brady or Cornell Capa, and little-known circus images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. For the first time, contemporary readers can experience the legend of the American circus in all its glory.

Me with the Circus Book. Note that I am 6 feet tall, so it's not like I'm super petite.

Firstly, this book is absolutely massive. It’s definitely a book that can only be read at home.  It’s also extremely heavy. This is not something you can cart around with you, unless you want some decidedly odd looks on the street. And a good workout.

The book is divided into different subsections:

Introduction: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chapter 1: Worldwide Roots of Circus: Invention, Performance, and Play

Chapter 2: Wonders of the World Await You

Chapter 3: Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated

Chapter 4: Strange Beasts from Foreign Lands

Chapter 5: Circus Acts: Controlled Mayhem to Dazzle and Delight

Chapter 6: Eating Fire, Throwing Knives: Freaks & Wonders of the Sideshow

Chapter 7: Tent City: Backstage at the Circus

Chapter 8: Seconds from Death: Risking Life & Limb for the Crowd

Each essay is also translated into French and German, but the hundreds of photographs are captioned in all three languages. I speak French passably well and German rather poorly, so it was also a chance to practice my language skills. Bonus!

But this book was absolutely extraordinary and showcases why print books will never leave us entirely: this is a work of art. It’s solidly made and the colour plates are fantastic. The photographs and old circus artwork truly brought the circus to life. There are plenty of full-page spreads and a good range of time periods, though there’s a bit more of the more recently 1940s-1950s than the 1870s, for instance.

The essays were also extremely helpful, especially the chapters about the freak shows and the daily life in the circus, as most of my other research focused far more on the acts and their social significance than the day-to-day details of living in a nomadic circus. I loved the candid photos of circus folk laughing and fooling around on the back lot to pass the time between shows. I also really enjoyed reading about how the circus was a way for the audience to learn and experience foreign lands, and nevermind that most of the people in the fantastic costumes were not from the land they pretended to be.

Of all the research I’ve done in the circus, this was the source that best showcased the wonder and magic the circus evokes.

I desperately, desperately want the Taschen book on magic, but it’s £98 on Amazon, whereas the Circus book was only £27. I keep hoping it will go on sale because I know it’ll be invaluable for my sequel. If it doesn’t, I’ve decided that if I sell my first book, I’m buying this as a well-deserved treat. Maybe I’ll be able to write it off my taxes, heh.