Bloomsbury Publishing 2023
Pirate Shek Yeung, a ruthless killer with no qualms about beheading anyone who challenges her authority, co-commands a fleet of 20,000 junks (three-mast sailboats) across the South China Sea. Author Rita Chang-Eppig, who grew up hearing stories about pirates, fashioned Shek Yeung as a winning female character in her novel, “Deep As the Sky Red as the Sea,” which is steeped in myths and historical events.
… doesn’t let up on the suspense …
Shek Yeung is patterned after ZhengYi, a real-life woman privateer during China’s Quing Dynasty, and born leader who convinced other pirates to join an alliance to defend themselves against plans by China, Europe and Portugal to eliminate pirating. There were six pirate fleets, each identified by different flag colors. In the novel Shek Yeung, like the true character, co-commanded with her husband the largest fleet, under a red flag.
During that period in time, China’s population suffered great famine, forcing many to join pirate ships to simply feed their families. In the novel, Shek Yeung’s father and brother, died at the hands of pirates, deaths she witnessed as a child. She was captured and forced to work in the flower boats as a prostitute. But one pirate, and her regular customer, Cheng Yat, recognized her brilliant mind and molded her into a fierce pirate and military strategist.
Author Chang-Eppig doesn’t let up on the suspense as her protagonist first gives birth, and then enters into battle. Her tropes are first class as she writes about her characters’ journey: “Maybe there was an essential violence in women, too, this thing that pricked at them from the inside like a needle a seamstress had forgotten to remove from a beautiful embroidered robe.” Her simmering question lingers — what does power feel like?
Readers are not only dealt a female character’s harrowing tales and human tragedies, but Chang-Eppig’s book will also likely channel research into little-known Asian history to better understand how thousand of pirates lived and fought in their masterfully crafted sailboats.