The year is 2513. Humanity lives with the consequences of everything we in the twenty-first century have done to the Earth. The oceans have risen and parts of them are dead. The air often isn’t safe. Our species has only survived because it’s managed to take to life on ships.
There’s a split between the people who live in naval colonies on the North Atlantic Archipelago and everyone else, namely pirates, mercenaries, or the drifters who trawl for plastics and other things they can trade for supplies. Resources are scarce, so whoever controls the underwater mines controls everything. At the moment, the Archipelago Fleet still holds them, but increasing pirate activity could change that, with disastrous consequences for the current order of things.
The story is told by Compass Rose, so named because she was born facing due north. Her natural ability to perceive cardinal points from deep within herself makes Rose an asset as a navigator on the North Star, working for Admiral Comita of Polaris Station. However, most of the crew on Polaris is skeptical of her uncanny sense of direction, so even though Rose might be able to intuit and map the safest of routes and calculate precise coordinates without the help of instruments, she doesn’t have any friends other than the admiral’s daughter.
One day, Comita approaches Rose, asking her to use her skills on a top-secret mission of the highest importance. She’s hired a mercenary crew to assess the pirate threat to the mines and see if the Fleet is as close to losing them as Comita fears. The only way their leader, Miranda, and her crew will be able to get the information is if they have a navigator who can guide a ship along the dangerous coast even when sonar fails them. The crew can never know that Rose is with the Fleet, and her survival will depend on following Miranda’s orders, no matter what they are.
The merc crew on the Man o’ War turns out to be no more welcoming than her colleagues in the Fleet, and they’re just as skeptical of Rose’s ability, even if they can’t deny how good she is.
I closed my eyes and reached out to the waters, feeling for treacherous currents, rip tides, and the myriad other dangers that awaited vessels in the islands, all the while keeping fleet patrol pattern coordinates firmly in my mind’s eye.
“Why are her eyes closed, Captain?” Finn asked as he entered the bridge.
“Hard to port,” I said, ignoring him. Miranda cranked the wheel, avoiding a rough patch of water that would have sent us hard up against a shoal. …
“Straight ahead.” I reached out and grabbed Miranda’s arm. “Port again.” The boat moved, painfully slowly.
“How the hell is she doing that?”
Finn was not the first person to ask that question, nor would he be the last, unless he distracted me and killed us all. I ignored him. I didn’t have an answer for him, any more than I had for anyone else. I could feel the ocean in my veins, shifting around me even through the walls of the ship. Through it all spun the earth’s magnetic field, pulling at the filaments in my blood and pointing me always toward true north. As the currents and my compass aligned and misaligned, the shape of the ocean unfolded, an uncomprehendingly complex system of action and reaction, displacement creating a wave there and a trough here, and all of it humming through me.
Rose quickly learns that she can’t trust anyone—even if they look like they’re on her side—and that the only way to stay safe and sane is to stick to her cardinal points and follow Comita’s direction to do anything Miranda says, no matter what.
Compass Rose is a thrill ride. The first-person narration immediately bringing us into Rose’s internal and external landscapes. While the food, clothes, and living quarters are better on the North Star than what she’s eventually treated to on the Man o’ War, we immediately learn that she was never totally safe there, since the first scene includes a run-in with a bully who’s particularly fond of targeting Rose. Born on one of the Archipelago’s smaller stations with a drifter for a father, Rose regularly experiences bigotry and jabs about being a drifter half-breed. When she joins the Man o’ War’s crew, her drifter heritage is actually preferable to her (seemingly) former status with the Fleet, and it’s the latter that leads this whole new group of people to scorn and target her.
The character work is especially excellent in Compass Rose. Rose goes through a tremendous journey, from the timid navigator who avoids her bullies at all costs to the reluctant merc crew member to an eventual force to be reckoned with. She grounds herself by reciting the cardinal points, and her innate sense of direction not only guide the ships she’s on, but also help her determine courses of action in her own life.
While Miranda might be Rose’s appointed lifeline, she’s also an enigma who draws Rose in while pushing her away, leading to some delicious chemistry between the women. That’s not to say this is a romance novel, because it very much isn’t, but that chemistry adds an interesting layer to Rose’s experiences on the Man o’ War while she tries to determine who she can trust and who she can demonstrate trustworthiness to.
Readers who are interested in rich world-building won’t be disappointed. This is one seriously messed up world and it’s very easy to picture us heading there, given the numerous companies and governments currently failing to protect our planet. The terrors go beyond the earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, and tsunamis that we see every disaster season, instead showing land that isn’t livable (or has sunk under the water entirely) and air that’s sometimes breathable and sometimes flammable. And there are giant squid.
Anna Burke has created a real gem with Compass Rose, one that fans of sci fi, and specifically climate fiction, should not miss. That this is Burke’s first book is also kind of incredible, because her talent is evident on every page. This is one author to watch, since she’s sure to delight us with more weird and wonderful stories for years to come.
By Anna Burke
Paperback, 9781612941196, 375 pp.