The wicked bargain

Gabe Cole Novoa

Book - 2023

Sixteen-year-old Mar, a transmasculine Latinx pirate hiding magical abilities, must learn to use their magia to save their papá and newfound pirate familia from losing their souls to el Diablo.

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Young Adult Area YOUNG ADULT FICTION/Novoa Gabe Checked In
LGBTQ+ fiction
Transgender fiction
Fantasy fiction
Queer fiction
New York : Random House Children's Books [2023]
Main Author
Gabe Cole Novoa (author)
First edition
Physical Description
361 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

In the summer of 1820, 16-year-old Mar León de la Rosa is aboard La Catalina, one of the last pirate ships in the Caribbean, when el Diablo comes to collect on the deal Mar's papá struck many years before. Though Mar expends their secret magic ability--controlling fire and ice--the ship still sinks, and the entire crew with it. Miraculously spared, Mar is spotted and rescued by Bas, the charming pirate son of another passing ship. While Mar, aching for freedom and a chance at a normal life, quarrels with the magia inside them, el Diablo returns with another deal: Mar's soul in exchange for their papá's. Transmasculine nonbinary Mar, who uses they/them pronouns, is the magical piratical teen of readers' dreams. Written in Mar's first person with Spanish interspersed, Novoa's story celebrates identities often othered in our world by representing them as ordinary here. A lineup of Latinx characters, gender-fluid demonio, and slow-burning romance beautifully round off this fantasy. The pacing of the novel can't always keep up with the high stakes of the plot, but that's a minor quibble; readers will be hard-pressed to find much fault here as they grapple with Mar's dilemma.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Debut author Novoa explores the often-underrepresented history of various marginalized populations in the early-19th-century Caribbean, using cinematic action scenes to conjure a swashbuckling tale brimming with sorcery. In 1820, nonbinary 16-year-old Mar León de la Rosa sails the sea aboard La Catalina, one of the Caribbean's last pirate ships, captained by their father, the legendary pirate Embrujado. When El Diablo arrives to claim Embrujado's soul in exchange for a deal he made long ago, El Diablo turns his sights to the crew and Mar, planning to steal their spirits as well. After narrowly escaping, Mar is rescued by the son of another pirate captain. Mar's ensuing quest to save their father is further complicated by their desperate attempts to hone their magia, abilities they've been ignoring their whole life. Learning that giving up their soul to El Diablo would set Embrujado free, Mar looks for a way out of El Diablo's deal, which threatens the entire Caribbean. Novoa imbues this moving exploration of historical transmasculinity and riveting examination of Spanish colonization with riotously good fun, making this an ideal read for audiences seeking a mix of knowledge and thrilling adventure. Characters are of Latinx descent. Ages 12--up. Agent: Louise Fury, Bent Agency. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 9 Up--For 16 years, Mar's life on the ocean has been pretty much perfect, as long as they keep their fire and ice magia under control. Mar's beloved Papá, Captain de la Rosa, leads the extremely successful crew of La Catalina until the night of Mar's 16th birthday, when el Diablo shows up to collect on an old bargain, resulting in the destruction of La Catalina and the disappearance of Mar's father. Pulled from the ocean by the annoyingly attractive Bas onto Captain de la Rosa's greatest rival's ship La Ana, Mar learns that el Diablo will accept only one thing in exchange for Mar's father--Mar's own soul. With the help of Bas (son of la Pirata Vega, captain of La Ana) and a genderfluid demonio named Dami, Mar rejects this binary decision but can only save Papá and themself if they can find the bravery to unleash the full strength of their magia. No stranger to rejecting binaries, Mar is transmasculine and uses they/them pronouns; Mar's struggles with body dysmorphia despite the acceptance and acknowledgment of their gender identity will be resonant or illuminative, depending on readers' perspectives. Set against a backdrop of early 19th-century Spanish control in the Caribbean, Spanish phrases are woven throughout. VERDICT This novel sets the standard for inclusive, swashbuckling romance; it's adventurous, fun, and highly recommended.--Allie Stevens

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

There's nothing more treacherous or binding than a deal with the devil. El Diablo sent the storm that sank La Catalina, one of the last pirate ships in the Caribbean. Mar León de la Rosa grew up hearing how their father traded his soul to save Mar's life and gain 16 years of prosperity, but they never believed it. Not even Mar's magia, their secret, dangerous powers of fire and ice, could save their family and shipboard home. Fished out of the sea by Bas, the son of a pirate captain, 16-year-old Mar flounders to hide and control their magia so they can make a new life aboard La Ana, a ship that aids revolutionaries fighting Spanish colonization. Then el Diablo returns with a new bargain: Mar can hand over their own soul to free Papá's. Set in the summer of 1820 but written in language that feels contemporary, this romantic coming-of-age fantasy offers endearing, flawed heroes, an enticing villain, and high emotional stakes. Bas, Mar's romantic interest, swaggers with characteristic piratical charm that's all the more appealing for his earnest eagerness for friendship, gentle kindness, and moments of sweet dorkiness. Novoa heightens the suspense by introducing key details that both foreshadow the danger ahead and reveal more about the world. The characters are primarily Latinx; Cuban and Mexican Mar's magia is connected to their Mayan heritage. The crew of La Ana includes formerly enslaved Black sailors. An alluring high-seas adventure. (author's note) (Fantasy. 13-18) Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 August 3, 1820 Papá says water speaks to those willing to listen. On the night Mar arrived silently in the world, the ocean danced and clapped in time with the roaring thunder and unrelenting rain. Mar's parents named them after the sea ­because the water had celebrated so fiercely, it nearly sank ­La Catalina when Mar took their first breath. Of course, Mar has no memory of their birth, but they imagine it was probably a night like tonight: dark as ink and so wet that they can barely keep their eyes open against the downpour. Fitting, as today's their sixteenth birthday. Mar leans against the rail of the crow's nest, squinting into the storm. The warm rain pelts their face and paints their lips, seeping into their mouth and soaking their clothes until their black linen shirt clings to their brown skin. Thunder like an army running through the tempest rolls through them. The rain is heavy and feels like drumming on their skin; though it's hard to separate the rain's embrace from the uneasy magia humming in their bones. Mar presses their hands down their rain-­slick arms, trying to ignore the fact that the edges of their black markings are glowing orange. The "birthmark" weaves over their arms and chest and down their legs like thick, black mazes. At least now Mar is old enough to pretend their markings are tattoos. Mar shakes their head and takes a deep breath. They can argue with their magia later. Leo, the quartermaster, sent them up here to peer through the blurry, endless sheet of rain to the raging waters. La Catalina is supposed to be nearing Isla Mujeres, off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. It's where Mar grew up, and Papá's crew frequently returns to deliver most of the treasures and resources they've taken from the Spaniards. It isn't really stealing--­more like returning, since the Spaniards stole it from those living around the Caribbean Sea in the first place. Out of the Spaniards' hands and back to the people. After five successful raids, the crew's haul is one of their biggest yet, but this storm is throwing them off course. If Mar's magia were useful, it might point them in the right direction, like a compass. But no, all Mar's magia ever does is cause them grief. It's a lesson they've had to learn the hard way, and one they don't intend to forget. Mar swiftly climbs down the rigging, gripping the rope with their toes, careful not to slip on the water-­slick holdings. They've climbed up to and down from the crow's nest on La Catalina so often, they could do it in their sleep. And a good thing, too, because it's dark tonight, Mar might as well be blindfolded. Their bare feet have scarcely touched the soaked wooden slats of the deck when a crack of lightning slices through the night, followed by a rumble Mar can feel in their chest. Papá isn't navigating--­not that Mar is surprised; navigating through a storm like this is like looking for fresh water in the ocean. Still, if anyone can navigate out of this storm, it's Papá. But as Mar squints through the storm, Papá doesn't seem to be on deck with most of the crew. So, then. He's inside. Coño, you'd better not be doing what I think you're doing. Mar marches up the steps to the quarterdeck, bracing themself against the railing as a wall of wind slams into them. Mar leans into the wind, cursing under their breath as they grip the rail so tightly their fingers hurt. Still, they slip back inches at a time over the slick steps anyway. Flames burst from their fingertips and Mar yelps, clamping down on their magia abruptly, pain lancing through their chest. Their shaking arms burn with effort; it's all they can do to hang on without letting their magia slip again and incinerate the rail. Mar glares at their orange markings. It's always the fire ready to explode out of them the moment their guard slips. Where fire always demands space and attention, their ice magia is quieter, steadier. "¿Por qué no puedes comportarte como el hielo?" Mar grits out. Ice magia never causes problems, but the fire is wild, demanding. Deadly. A wave of heat washes over them in protest, so hot Mar sweats in the rain. But then the wind lets up just long enough for Mar to rush up the remaining stairs, to the back of the quarterdeck, and through the gilded double doors into el Capitán's quarters, slamming the doors behind them before the wind can catch them. It takes all of a second for Mar to adjust to the dim golden candlelight of the cabin and register the thick smell of rum in the air. Two empty bottles lie on their sides on the floor beside the table strewn with maps, illustrations, and trinkets scavenged from various raids. Papá's favorite gun--­which once belonged to the cabrón Manuel Ramón García López, the Spanish capitán who has made it his mission to hunt down the last of the Caribbean's pirates--­teeters at the edge of the table. Mar touches their own holstered flintlock pistol tucked under their soaked shirt at the small of their back. They run their thumb over the slick wax waterproof coating and onto their rope belt as they peer into the dim cabin. Not because it's likely anyone dangerous is here, but with the endless humming in their bones, the reminder that the pistol is still there ­is . . . ­reassuring. "Mar!" The call comes from the far end of the room, doused in shadow, where Papá's bed is. Papá stumbles out of the darkness, his rail-­thin frame leaning on Leo's large torso. Papá grins widely as he waves around a third bottle of rum, this one half-­empty. Some of the amber liquid sloshes out of the thin bottle neck onto his stained white shirt, slapping the deck like the rain outside. Papá must be really drunk. He'd never let even a drop of precious rum go to waste unless he was neck-deep in, well, three bottles. La Catalina's quartermaster grimaces as he gently helps Papá to the table, looking at Mar with something like disappointment. "¿Viste algo?" he asks softly. Leo sounds utterly exhausted, and it takes Mar half a second to recognize he's talking to them. "Oh." Mar rips their gaze away from their completely drunk Papá. "No, it's impossible to see anything through this storm," they answer in Spanish. Leo steadies Papá and releases him, watching as Papá balances on his own. Satisfied he won't fall over, Leo sighs deeply, gently cups Papá's cheek for a moment, then bites his lip and walks over to Mar. He rests his hand on Mar's shoulder and squeezes lightly. "I need to get back out there with the crew. Can you . . . ?" "I can handle him," Mar says. "Let me know if you need help out there." Leo nods. "Still the long night." They meet his steady gaze. "Still the long night." Leo takes two quick strides to the hatch, then hesitates, his hand on the door. He looks back to Papá. The pain in his face is raw--­it hits Mar in the chest. "Te amo, Juan." The smile that warms Papá's face makes him look ten years younger. "Y yo también te amo, mi corazón." Leo smiles softly, then steps out into the roaring storm. Mar sighs and turns back to Papá, not sure where to begin. "¿Qué tal, mi tesoro?" Papá slams the bottle on the table so hard, it's a miracle it doesn't crack. He stumbles forward, and his rings scratch the table as his hand trails on it for balance. Mar isn't feeling especially treasured. "I don't think I've ever seen a storm this bad--­at least not while sailing," Mar says. Papá gets close enough for the mixed stink of alcohol and sweat to flood Mar's nose, but they resist the urge to step back. The man may smell, but he's still Mar's papá. Besides, it isn't the first time they've found him borracho like this in his quarters. Still, when Papá clasps Mar's face in his hands, the reek is so strong, Mar tries not to breathe. They focus instead on Papá's rough hands on their cheeks. On the raised line around Papá's thumb where García López tried--­and almost succeeded in--­cutting off his finger. On the crinkles around Papá's smiling eyes in his brown skin; on the gray hair just barely speckling his mustache, even though Papá is still too young for gray. "Just look at you," Papá whispers. He takes Mar's hands and runs his fingers over their still-­glowing markings. "Incredible." Papá's gaze unfocuses, and a small smile carves his lips while he traces the lines on Mar's shoulder. Like he's looking at some paradise far away. Magia. Easy to worship magia if you're not forced to hide it all the time, Mar thinks. They glance at their arms and groan aloud; their dark sleeves are rolled up, and their markings are glowing fully bright orange, which seems unfair because they haven't even used magia. "¡Basta!" Mar hisses, shaking their arm as though they were trying to put out a match. It doesn't do a thing, of course; Mar's magia has been stubborn all day, bursting from them unprompted in sparks, demanding attention. Before it started raining they even accidentally set a rope on fire, a slipup they haven't made in months. All night their magic has buzzed uneasily under their skin, a never-­ending hum, their bones vibrating like tuning forks. It swirls around Mar's stomach and collects--­hot--­around their heart. A warning, whispering--­something. Refusing to be ignored. Mostly it just makes Mar nervous. And a little angry. Life would be so much easier if they could just pretend their magia didn't exist. Mar scowls and rubs their still-­glowing arms, trying not to think about how they must look like some kind of demonio, glowing from collarbones to wrists to toes. At least on La Catalina they don't have to hide until their magia calms down. The schooner isn't just their home; it's their haven. The only place they don't have to worry about being executed for brujería. They stuff their hands into their soaked trouser pockets. "Magia only brings trouble and death," they mutter. But Papá shakes his head and takes Mar's face in his rough hands. "Your magia is a gift, tesoro. You need to stop fighting it and accept it--­it's a part of you. A beautiful part of--­" Excerpted from The Wicked Bargain by Gabe Cole Novoa All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.