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Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea


Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea

Readers who pick up Rita Chang-Eppig’s debut novel, DEEP AS THE SKY, RED AS THE SEA, should set aside all their preconceptions about what a pirate saga should be. This is decidedly not Pirates of the Caribbean (though its protagonist does appear as a secondary, stereotyped character in that film franchise), but it does have its share of swashbuckling and more than a little violence. But rather than consisting of a series of action-packed battles, the book is more about political power, what it means for a woman in an unusual role to claim authority for herself, and the moral ambiguities at the heart of any struggle for power.

"DEEP AS THE SKY, RED AS THE SEA is densely rich and rewarding, replete not only with compelling details of Chinese life, culture and piracy in the 19th century, but also with spiritual elements..."

Set in the early 1800s, during the lead-up to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, the story centers on Shek Yeung, a woman in her early 30s who has accompanied her husband, the pirate Cheng Yat, on his voyages for the past several years. Cheng Yat effectively purchased Shek Yeung’s freedom from the sex work she was engaged in on the so-called flower boats --- floating brothels --- in Canton. Since then, she has borne him two sons (both of whom she barely knows, as they have been raised since infancy by Cheng Yat’s wealthy family). But, arguably more importantly, she has become a skilled fighter and strategist in her own right.

So when Cheng Yat is killed in battle in the novel’s opening sentence, Shek Yeung immediately calculates what needs to happen to secure her own future. Both she and a younger man, Cheung Po (who has a complicated relationship with Cheng Yat, as both his sometime lover and his de facto adopted son), have a case for inheriting the Red Banner Fleet of pirate ships. In order to cement the loyalty of the crew and consolidate their authority, Shek Yeung concludes, she and Cheung Po must marry and have a son of their own, a representation of unified power and the next generation.

But this internal struggle is playing out during a particularly fraught moment in the South China Sea. The Chinese emperor is cracking down on piracy, and European powers are meddling in the Chinese pirates’ affairs for reasons that are not immediately clear. Shek Yeung finds herself navigating complicated allegiances with other pirates while also struggling at times to maintain loyalty among her own crew --- all this while soon dealing with the complications of being pregnant, and then caring for a newborn, on board a pirate ship.

DEEP AS THE SKY, RED AS THE SEA is densely rich and rewarding, replete not only with compelling details of Chinese life, culture and piracy in the 19th century, but also with spiritual elements, as Shek Yeung continually calls upon the sea goddess Ma-Zou, whose legends are woven throughout the narrative and set in comparison or contrast to Shek Yeung’s own story. Chang-Eppig also excels at description, both in her evocative, dynamic depictions of place (“Taiwan appeared before her now…its deep blue waters paling into turquoise closer to land, as if the waves were frightened by the reptilian spine of green that stretched the length of the island. A low fog herded across the mountains, licking at treetops as it went”) and in her accounts of violence, which are perhaps all the more shocking for their restraint.

Shek Yeung’s story also holds terrific heft and relevance for contemporary women, as the pirate queen must figure out how best to balance her various roles and responsibilities. She’s a complicated character whose sometimes questionable choices will spark plenty of debate. But that ambiguity adds just one more captivating layer to Chang-Eppig’s remarkable debut.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 3, 2023

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea
by Rita Chang-Eppig

  • Publication Date: May 28, 2024
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1639734082
  • ISBN-13: 9781639734085