In this reissue of a title first published in 1991, Captain Valoree Ainsley has to find a husband in order to claim her inheritance. And that could be a problem, seeing as she is roaming the high seas as a pirate named Captain Red (soon dubbed Back-From-The-Dead Red). Since the death of her older brother Jeremy, she has become the scourge of the seven seas while questing for vengeance against her brother’s murderers. But with most of the Spanish sailors responsible now defeated, “Valerian’s” time as a pirate is coming to an end. It’s time to fulfill Jeremy’s dream by quitting her pirating, claiming his birthright, settling at their ancestral Ainsley Castle, marrying and having children.
Valoree spends five years earning herself a pretty stockpile of cash before returning to the mainland with her most trusted crewmembers, One-Eye, Henry, Bull and Skully, to pose as a cultured lady. She hires an elderly prostitute named Meg to portray her aunt, and disguises her men as servants in the hope of putting up enough of a cover to get the family lawyer to hand over the property. But it turns out the estate comes with a stipulation – she must be married and pregnant by a ‘respectable, intelligent and equally fecund’ nobleman in order to inherit her father’s estate. She must be in said state by her twenty-fifth birthday or else the estate will revert to the next in line, which gives her nine months exactly to seduce and marry a suitable fellow. Valoree doubts she can find a man willing to fulfill all of the terms of the will, so she plans to set sail – until her crew out-votes her, hoping she’ll abide by Jeremy’s promise to give them all cottages on the estate and a settled life. Even Meg, to whom Valoree has promised a cottage, agrees to the scheme. So with her piratical fairy godfathers dressed in bright pink livery costumes, hard at work helping her get a foothold in society through awkward application of makeup and unsubtle subterfuge, Valoree rolls up her sleeves, prepares to grit her teeth and find her prince.
That prince happens to be Daniel, Lord Thurborne, who has a similar codicil attached to his own inheritance by his worried (and now quite dead) grandmother. Forced to wife-hunt by his hectoring mother, Daniel is a first-class rake and less than interested in settling down for money. When he hears that Valoree is the sister of the infamous Captain Red, he springs into action – he spent the years before his grandmother’s death hunting privateers and Captain Red is the only one to ever escape his clutches. Charmed by one another and yet refusing to submit or capitulate to each other’s will, Daniel and Valoree embark on a relationship filled with subterfuge and escapades. Will the pirates get their just rewards, even if they have to meddle for them? And will Daniel and Valoree figure out if they love each other and save their respective estates?
Don’t be fooled by Lady Pirate’s bodice ripper-esque cover; it’s rather more of a romantic slapstick comedy in the mold of Lucille Ball than a throwback to Johanna Lindsay. That isn’t to say that the comedy is particularly iconic, or the romance too memorable. But it does manage to pass the time in a fairly decent manner.
Valoree is, in general, a lot of fun – salty and crusty as a pretzel, a comically atypical heroine. She’s also warm and loves her men and family enough to make her likable, and is a prickly enough match for the surly Daniel. One watches her eventual taming into a lady of some social skill with a regretful sigh, especially when her trusted crew sits there and lectures her about how she’s not a ‘born’ pirate and her existence is an act of swimming upstream against the social current. They weren’t complaining a hundred pages ago when she slaughtered so many enemy sailors she walked away coated in their blood.
Daniel does not come close to matching Valoree’s fire, coming off as your typical stock-in-trade hero in most regards, rolling his eyes at the heroine’s fish out of water antics and shunning marriage until her charms and his lust overwhelm him. While he and Valoree are appropriately alike and have similar problems and goals, he does not make much of an impression when on his own.
The worst part of the story is, sadly, the romance; there is absolutely no chemistry between the couple. When the heroine and her intended are kidnapped by their friends in the third act, drugged, and forced to marry, it’s like watching a child making her Barbies kiss.
The supporting characters are funny, especially the salty One-Eye and the surprisingly multilayered Meg. In fact most of Valoree’s crew is memorable, to the point that I yearned for the book to stick with the familial bond between piratess and crew instead of the typical slap-slap-kiss romance she and Daniel share. You probably know where such kisses are headed but it – and the endless will-they-or-won’t-they-marry stuff – comes off as tedious. It wastes so much time that the main crux of Valarie’s character arc – her search for revenge on the sailor who killed her brother and stole the family treasure – occupies only the first and last eighths of the book, trotting in and out of the plot because its gruesome existence puts far too much serious weight on what is otherwise a fluffy comedy. That it is wrapped up in a way that’s completely unsatisfying just adds salt to the wound.
There’s a great comedic novel in this book; it would’ve been a great screwball comedy seventy years ago. But with a hero straight from central casting it’s the romance that drags down Lady Pirate’s occasionally engaging brew.