The Left-Handed Fate, by Kate Milford

I am a great admirer of Kate Milford, and I will pretty much follow her anywhere (in terms of reading her books, unless of course she decides to write the economic history of the 1980s or something).  And so despite the fact that The Left-Handed Fate (Henry Holt and Co, August 23, 2016), her most recent upper middle grade book, is in large measure about the titular privateer and her crew (I am not naturally drawn to seafaring tales), and even though the time period (War of 1812) isn't my favorite, I approached the book with keen interest and enthusiasm, untrammeled by personal bias. I was rewarded with an excellent story, characters to care about, and my first visit to the strange wonderful city of Nagspeake (which was nice for me, not just because it is a strange and twisty and magical place, but because I was expecting the whole book to take place at sea so I was glad that it didn't).

The story--Max is continuing his dead father's quest to find the parts of a mysterious mechanism that will be the weapon that will end all wars (in particular, the Napoleonic Wars), and has hired the privateer, The Left-Handed Fate, to take him to Baltimore to find a component that's supposed to be there.  Things go wrong.  They are taken as a prize by the American Navey, with a 12 year old midshipman, Oliver, made commander of the prize crew.  Then a French vessel turns up, seaking the mechanism bits that Max already has, and then the mysterious Black Ship of utter creepiness that has been haunting the Left-Handed Fate turns up, and instead of taking the Fate back to Baltimore, Oliver enlists its crew, led by the captain's daughter Lucy, to make a run to the south to the strange city of Nagspeake.  There Max and Lucy, assisted by her little brother Liao, find the other parts of the mechanism...but is building it really going to solve all their problems?  What of the French? And what of the Black Ship and its crew?   

But most importantly, what will the machine become?

And of additional interest, will Lucy get her ship/home back?  Will she and Max get to the point where they get to kiss? 

So all in all, a very good read indeed!  Highly recommended to readers of all ages who like immersive experiences of strangeness and adventure, with puzzles to solve and old stories coming true.

other comments--

You can read Kate's thoughts about the book in her Big Idea post at Whatever.

Nagspeake has a life of its own (although its website is currently not working for me), and there's another story set there--Bluecrowne, which is also about Lucy and Liao and which I have not read and which I clearly must read immediately!

The ending drove me mad trying to remember two other books it reminded me of.  I was able to come up with one of them--The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, with its tension between the owl pattern (bringing darkness and discord) and the flower pattern (bringing peace), but the other is still eluding me, and all my brain is coming up with is a snatch of poorly remembered rhyme-

Shall we something something [birth?]
Shall we sing for death or mirth? 

or something like that.  I feel it is a not very good fantasy book of Celticness from the 1980s.  I could be wrong.

Update--I am very pleased with my brain, and shall keep it--I remembered that I was thinking of the awful Celtic eugenics part of A Swiftly Tilting planet

Now we leave our tears for mirth,
Now we sing, not death, but birth

I can see why I thought of it, because it is thematically about the delicate balance between something turning evil and something turning good...

And then I added to my mental laurels by remembering where I had recently reshelved the L'Engle books and was able to find it! 
(Lory cleverly recognized it too before I wrote this update--thanks Lory!)

final comment--I appreciated the somewhat random inclusion of an albatross.  I feel that albatross inclusions add value to almost any situation.

disclaimer--review copy pounced on/received from the publisher at ALA midwinter.


  1. A Swiftly Tilting Planet? There's a verse in there that ends "Does it call for tears or mirth? Shall we sing for death or birth?" (Chapter 4)

    Anyway, this book sounds terrific! The only Kate Milford I've read is Greenglass House, but I liked that a lot, so I'll look forward to reading this one. As well as her economic history of the 1980s. (Wouldn't you just be curious to see what she did with it?)

  2. thank you Lory! I had just remembered it myself, but it was very clever of you to recognize it!

  3. Did you know a sequel to Greenglass House is in the works?

    1. I think I did hear that somewhere ... looking forward to that one as well.

  4. I have heard good things about Milford but not actually read her yet. One of these days!

  5. This is a good one to start with...

  6. Sounds interesting, will have to keep an eye out for The Left-Handed Fate.

  7. My first thought - "Ooh, but /I/ am drawn to seafaring tales!" :P I still haven't read anything by Milford. Though Greenglass House is on my list, this one sounds even more up my alley. Thanks for the review.

  8. THE LEFT-HANDED FATE may be the best yet, with new and subtle layers to the people and relationships we thought we knew. Read all the books in order of publication and know that you will not once be disappointed.


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