Mitchell is a master of nautical atmosphere – having grown up living by the sea myself, I can 100% confirm that she knows how to make the ocean come alive in text. The Bloody Maiden instantly had me comparing it to Jamaica Inn. Imagine if a feminist, orphaned, and morally gray Mary Yellan left Jamaica Inn to join the smugglers; that’s the Bloody Maiden for you.
The book is largely character-driven, following Prudence’s (an orphaned barmaid at a brothel) journey to become a free woman (some may say a fallen woman) as a ruthless pirate. She’s unapologetic and so very feminist that I instantly clicked with her. She longs to escape a life in which she’s smothered by the constraints of her sex. By contrast, her sister-only-in-name, Eleanora, is a prostitute who likes the safety of the brothel where they both live. When Prudence drags Eleanora onto a pirate vessel after a bloody barfight, they become part of the crew. This creates a split between the two sister-friends, and the roles are reversed: suddenly Prudence is happy with life, but Eleanora isn’t.
A lot of the book is centered on their fraying survival-of-the-fittest friendship. Indeed, their friendship was one of my favorite things about the book. When Prudence makes friends with the crew despite her sex, and then later falls in love with the captain of the ship, this friendship is tested further. This is a book for you if you enjoy found family, BUT you must also be able to swallow a lot of tragedy and darkness as that’s part of the genre. Don’t expect roses and candles.
The story has a well-built fantastical slant with folklore and mythical creatures (yell hound/lindworn/sirens/blood magick/witches), but never so much that the world feels far removed from the natural one as we know it. You can say that Mitchell has brought the superstition of sailors alive – literally. That’s what it feels like.
The narrative does touch upon subjects not for the faint of heart, but that’s expected of the genre. It’s explicitly gritty in some places, but not overall too explicit, in my opinion. Prudence suffers suicidal thoughts at the beginning of the novel, plus an opium addiction. Although not at the forefront of the plot, LGBTQ-rep is naturally and realistically implemented in the book.