Book Review: A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee – A Spirited Sapphic Asian Retelling of Treasure Island about the Thrills of Adventure, the Legacy of Piracy, and Finding Yourself at Sea

A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island remix by c.b. lee. reviewed by cw at the quiet pond.
Synopsis:

Two intrepid girls hunt for a legendary treasure on the deadly high seas in this YA remix of the classic adventure novel Treasure Island.

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd business woman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her only memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports — that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

I was provided an eARC of this book from the author. This does not influence my opinion in any way.

One of the best feelings in the world is reading a book that you were excited for, a book that you were anxiously anticipating, and then to discover that it was better than you could have ever imagined. A Clash of Steel was that book for me. Though loving A Clash of Steel should have come as no surprise – I have, after all, read and loved every single book that C.B. Lee has ever written – I was blown away by A Clash of Steel, its spirit, and its delightful sense of adventure.

A retelling of Treasure Island, A Clash of Steel follows Xiang, a sheltered teen living in a no-where village. When a mysterious girl named Anh steals Xiang’s pendant, the only remnant of her dead father, the two girls discover that the pendant may lead to treasure belonging to the Head of the Dragon fleet. Desperate to prove herself to her strict mother, Xiang follows Anh and her motley crew on an adventure in pursuit of the treasure – and may discover something more: a family, love, and herself.

One of my favourite things about A Clash of Steel is the story’s transportive storytelling. I felt immediately pulled into Xiang’s world – from her stifling yet quaint home where she feels she doesn’t belong, the bustling streets of Canton brimming with life and intrigue, to the peace and danger of open water. The first part of the book is predominantly focuses on Xiang’s journey and her development as she grows from a naïve girl to a confident seafarer. The second part, however, is where the story sails forth at full speed. I thoroughly enjoyed the mounting stakes, particularly when things get complicated when Xiang and the crew discover that they are not the only ones after the treasure, and the twist towards the end was delightful and fascinating. Reading A Clash of Steel, I felt like I was on a journey right next to Xiang, living every new and exciting thing with her.

I reveled in the details of the worldbuilding; it’s not often I read historical fantasies set in 1800’s Asia following the age of piracy. I loved how the central mythos was Zheng Yi Sao, one of the most successful pirates in world history – and she actually lived! (She commanded a fleet of 1500 to 1800 ships, crewed by 80,000 sailors during her peak, and was so powerful that the Chinese government had no choice but to offer her amnesty because their own fleets kept losing to her in warfare.) And yet, Zheng Yi Sao’s incredible story is overshadowed by comparatively more mediocre pirates, so I love that A Clash of Steel pays tribute to Zheng Yi Sao and the shadow of fear she would have cast upon those that witnessed her reign. But I digress.

Xiang was a wonderful character. She’s sheltered, naïve, desperate to prove her worth and earn her mother’s respect. I connected with Xiang’s personal journey, particularly with how the story captures that feeling of wanting to be more, that feeling like you can be great if only you were given the chance. In saying that, I loved the direction that Xiang’s character arc takes – as she is whisked away on a grand adventure, she discovers things a world and a life she never imagined. She discovers a found family that accepts her for who she is, she gains strengths and belonging by being part of a crew, and discovers that home isn’t a place or a station but someone who anchors you.

The pacing in A Clash of Steel takes its time to flesh out the small moments, but the pace worked for me. I enjoyed the details, all the emotional beats, and especially the gorgeous and tender slow-burn romance complete with romantic swordfights. Xiang and Anh’s was beautiful; there’s tension as the two don’t quite know if they can trust each other but their chemistry and attraction is undeniable and wondrous. I loved seeing two sapphic Asian girls fall slowly in love with one another. A Clash of Steel is also generous with the delicious tropes that we all love to read: the ‘there’s only one bed’ trope and the ‘our clothes were wet so let’s take them off to dry them off so let me help you undo your shirt’s knot even though my hands are trembling’ trope are satisfying and made me smile like a fool.

At the heart of A Clash of Steel, the story celebrates the joy and thrill of adventure; the possibilities that an adventure can hold and the self-discovery that adventure promises. I love that the story fully utilises the potential of a pirates and treasure, and how it intertwines themes of identity. What does the pursuit of treasure reveal about someone’s wants, desires, and aspirations? What has someone lost, and what are they willing to sacrifice to find and attain unimaginable wealth? What is loyalty in treasure hunting, what is betrayal? The story explores these questions through its myriad of characters, and how these wants are made palpable and tangible with treasure to discover.  

MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED

First with superheroes in the Sidekick Squad Series and now pirates with A Clash of Steel, C.B. Lee has a knack for reinvigorating hackneyed stories with fresh and compelling perspectives. Indeed, A Clash of Steel is refreshing pirate story, a retelling that does Treasure Island and its spirit of adventure justice, and a celebration of how life beholds countless unexpected journeys that take us to paths unknown, dangerous, and joyous. I loved this gorgeous queer Asian pirate story and its tribute to Zheng Yi Sao’s legacy. A Clash of Steel is an excellent first installment of the Feiwel and Friends Remixed Classics series – and I’m looking forward to reading the retellings to come.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A girl sets off on an adventure to uncover legendary treasure to prove her worth to her mother – but finds a family and herself along the way.

Perfect for: Readers who love pirate stories; readers who love slow-burn romances; readers who love historical fantasies; readers interested in retellings.

Think twice if: You are not a fan of books with a slower pace.

Genre: young adult historical fantasy fiction

Trigger/content warning: death of loved one, physical violence (sword and fist fight scenes), alcohol consumption 

Goodreads | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | Amazon | My short review on Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee – A Spirited Sapphic Asian Retelling of Treasure Island about the Thrills of Adventure, the Legacy of Piracy, and Finding Yourself at Sea

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