Novoa, Gabe Cole. The Wicked Bargain. New York: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2023.
ISBN-13: 978-0593378014 | $18.99 USD | 368 pages | YA Historical Fantasy
El Diablo is in the details in this Latinx pirate fantasy starring a transmasculine nonbinary teen with a mission of revenge, redemption, and revolution.
On Mar León de la Rosa’s sixteenth birthday, el Diablo comes calling. Mar is a transmasculine nonbinary teen pirate hiding a magical ability to manipulate fire and ice. But their magic isn’t enough to reverse a wicked bargain made by their father, and now el Diablo has come to collect his payment: the soul of Mar’s father and the entire crew of their ship.
When Mar is miraculously rescued by the sole remaining pirate crew in the Caribbean, el Diablo returns to give them a choice: give up their soul to save their father by the harvest moon, or never see him again. The task is impossible–Mar refuses to make a bargain, and there’s no way their magic is a match for el Diablo. Then Mar finds the most unlikely allies: Bas, an infuriatingly arrogant and handsome pirate–and the captain’s son; and Dami, a gender-fluid demonio whose motives are never quite clear. For the first time in their life, Mar may have the courage to use their magic. It could be their only redemption–or it could mean certain death.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.
The Wicked Bargain is a fun debut, and I was drawn to the concept of a queer Latinx pirates, especially since much of the pirate-centric media is overwhelmingly white and cishet. I love how the narrative focuses on taking the power back from people who benefited (even indirectly) from colonialism and exploring the truly diverse world of the Caribbean and piracy. The choice to pepper in Spanish liberally throughout the text further helps with the immersion, and it’s still fairly easy for non-Spanish speakers to pick up the context, or to rely on translation aids to assits in their comprehension.
And the choice to center LGBTQ+ people in a historical (albeiit fantastical) setting is radical too, even if there is precedent for it in pirate history. It shows that queer history hasn’t always been about struggle and bigotry, and there have been societies where there was a more fluid understanding of gender identity or two people of the same gender could marry and reap the benefits of that arrangement, similar to their cishet counterparts.
Mar is a great lead, and a great example of how you can have a queer character dealing with complex issues and high stakes without being defined by all the struggles that can come from being queer. They’ve dealt with loss and are reckoning with the trauma, as well as the impact their magical powers have on their perception of them in society. Throughout the book, they go on a realistic journey of grappling with their issues and growing, coming to terms with them.
I also love how the story centers found-family, with Mar being saved by another pirate crew and being taken in, while he is dealing with the loss of his birth family. There are truly some colorful characters among the bunch, like the ever-friendly Bas, who is incredibly loyal to Mar. And with there being a fantasy element, there’s also the genderfluid demon Dami, and I love the dynamic that develops between them and Mar.
With equal focus on the adventure and the protagonist’s personal growth, the story moved at a consistent pace, and kept me invested throughout. My personal engagement in the story remained constant throughout, and I finished the book feeling satisfied with the overall trajectory of the narrative.
This is a wonderfully original story, and one I’d recommend to anyone who is looking for a pirate story that centers a more diverse lens.
Gabe Cole Novoa (he/him) is a Latinx transmasculine author who writes speculative fiction featuring marginalized characters grappling with identity.
Now leveled up with an MFA in Writing for Children, when he isn’t being nerdy at his day job, or buried under his TBR pile, you’ll likely find him making heart-eyes at the latest snazzy outfit he wants to add to his wardrobe.
Gabe is the author of The Wicked Bargain (out Feb 2023), an untitled Pride & Prejudice retelling (Winter 2024), and the Beyond the Red trilogy, written under a former pseudonym. He also runs a popular writing-focused YouTube channel, bookishpixie and is very active on Twitter @thegabecole
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