“After invaders destroyed her village, murdered her family, and took her prisoner, shield-maiden Ragna is hungry for revenge. A trained warrior, she is ready to fight for her home, but with only a mermaid and a crew of disloyal mercenaries to aid her, Ragna knows she needs new allies. Guided by the magical maps on her skin, battling storms and mutiny, Ragna sets sail across the Northern Sea.
She petitions the Jarl in Skjordal for aid, but despite Ragna’s rank and fighting ability, the Jarl sees only a young girl, too inexperienced to lead, unworthy of help. To prove herself to the Jarl and win her crew’s respect, Ragna undertakes a dangerous expedition. But when forced to decide between her own freedom and the fate of her crew, what will she sacrifice to save what’s left of her home?” (via Goodreads)
I was unprepared for The Navigator’s Touch. Even though I’ve read Julia Ember’s work before and knew what I was getting into, the book sneaked up on me. It was more action-packed than I expected and more nuanced than I expected.
Saying Ragna is complicated is an understatement. She is deeply angry – who wouldn’t be after the terrible things she’s suffered through at the hands of arrogant men? – and pockmarked with low self-confidence. At the beginning of the novel we think she’s this strong and empowered young woman, but by the end she’s grown so tremendously that we realize she was hardly more than a girl before. What we think are her best traits are revealed to be flaws; her best attributes are really obstacles hindering her from becoming the great leader she longs to be. Ragna makes a lot of mistakes, like, A LOT of them, but looking back it’s easy to see why she did what she did and how each experience shaped her into a better person.
The Seafarer’s Kiss, the first book in the series, is told from Ersel’s perspective while The Navigator’s Touch is from Ragna’s, although both appear in each book. They share romantic feelings toward each other, but this is not a romance. Both have other bigger issues to deal with first before they can even think about starting a healthy, long-term relationship. As intriguing a character as Ersel is, she doesn’t get nearly enough to do in the sequel. Having her disappear for a large chunk of the story doesn’t help matters. Some of that is due to the sometimes slow pace. Some bits take longer to get through than they probably should, and that makes Ersel’s absence more noticeable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the pacing is a full fledged problem, but it could be tighter.
What I love the most about The Navigator’s Touch is that it’s a gleeful middle finger to all those gatekeepers whinging about how diversity is “ruining” historical fantasy. The Norse traded and sailed not just all over the Atlantic but to Africa, eastern Europe, and the Middle East as well. Their gods shapeshifted between species and genders. In other words, the Norse world was not all white, all cis, or all straight. Julia Ember picks up on that theme and runs with it, creating a rollicking revenge tale with a disabled lesbian main character, a biracial Black African jarl (a local chief or earl), and two non-binary characters who use they/them pronouns – one of whom is a romantic love interest.
Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t (yet!) read The Seafarer’s Kiss, but The Navigator’s Touch functions well as a standalone story. We get the highlights of the first book in the second, just enough to give you a foundation for character relationships and not enough to dampen your desire to want to go back and read it. In fact, as much as I dislike reading a series out of order, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I can’t let it slip through my greedy little fingers. So if you haven’t yet picked up both books, drop everything and do so now!
I knelt beside the stempost and held onto it with all my strength. The men clung to their benches and prayed. Ersel sat inside the skiff, which we had dragged onto the deck when the clouds began obscuring the sky. She wrapped four tentacles around the warship’s mast to anchor herself, and the other four around the hull of the skiff. Even with the storm threatening to drown us all, someone needed to guard the weapons. I knew too well that desperation made people brave. Unlike the rest of us, Ersel was the picture of calm. Her expression was almost apathetic as she gazed out over the gigantic waves. Drowning wasn’t something she had to fear.
Thanks to Julia Ember for sending me a review copy.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.