Once a Rebel by Tammy Hilz
(Zebra, $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6779-8
Labeled “historical romance,” this story of the middle sister in a family of female pirates is actually fantasy from start to finish. It can be entertaining although it’s pretty predictable.

Joanna Fisk is captain of her own pirate ship, passed on from her older sister Morgan. Morgan, whose story was told in Once a Pirate, was pardoned by George III at the behest of her captor and soon-to-be-husband, shipping magnate Lord Daniel Tremayne, on the condition that the Fisks give up piracy and that their ship never sail again.

Jo has her own ideas. Having lost her younger brother and watched another child die as the result of the privations of the Seven Years’ War, Jo hates and has vowed revenge upon all aristocrats. She has also sworn to save the London orphans who’ve been abandoned by what we would call “the system.” To accomplish both these goals she has returned to piracy, stealing from the rich to give to the orphans, as it were.

At a ball given by Morgan, Jo overhears a conversation in which her brother-in-law agrees to provide a ship to Nathan Alcott, Marquess Darvill, to transport fifty thousand pounds in gold to France. She has never pillaged Daniel’s ships, but cannot resist the lure of so much money. Confident that she can steal the treasure without damage to Daniel’s property, Jo sets sail.

Unbeknownst to her, Nathan is on his way to ransom his sister, held hostage by her former fiancé. As you might expect, since losing it means his sister’s death, Nathan is extremely reluctant to hand the gold over. When Jo captures Nathan’s ship she challenges him to a duel for it and Nathan is seriously wounded by a dishonorable act on Jo’s part. Guilt-stricken, she takes both money and man onto her ship for the proper care.

The rest of the story unfolds pretty much as you might expect. Nathan is an aristocrat, so Jo must hate him. Jo is endangering his sister, as well as everyone else she comes in contact with, so Nathan isn’t too happy with her either. They want each other in spite of all the angst.

Jo is one of those heedless, impetuous heroines who insists on doing things her own way and then is amazed when her plans go awry. She clings to the notion that piracy is the only way to accomplish her goals, refusing to consider any other options, particularly if they involve accepting help from anyone. She’s going to help the children, but only on her own terms, all by herself.

The “I must save the children” mantra gets tiresome after a while, mostly because it is simply repeated over and over without adding anything to the story or Jo’s character. And she doesn’t seem to think it’s inconsistent to save them from the streets in order to turn them into pirates. I mean, they do it of their own free will because they adore her and it’s for a good cause and everything, but it still seemed a bit Fagin-ish to me. Especially since Jo has a tendency to walk away from her responsibilities as captain when there’s something she wants to do more, like wringing her hands over Nathan when he’s wounded.

It’s also pretty clear that Jo really likes being a pirate - she hates those stuffy receptions her sister wants her to attend now that they’re respectable - so all the insistence on higher motives gets a bit strained. A little more self-knowledge, or a sense of humor, would have made her a much more interesting character.

Nathan is nice enough, if a bit limited. His primary function seems to be to say “wait here” and “stay behind me” and “you can’t do that” and then hurry to catch up when Jo ignores him. Although he obviously wants her, I found it difficult to tell exactly what it is about Jo that he finds so emotionally compelling.

Still, there’s lots of action, so if you like swashbucklers and don’t need a lot of surprises you will likely find this book quite enjoyable. If your credulity has more circumscribed limits, however, consider yourself warned.

--Judi McKee

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