Three years ago this month, a good friend passed away. Sandra Moran was an exceptionally gifted writer. She really wanted to raise the bar for lesbian-themed writing. With the permission and assistance of her widow, I helped start the Sandra Moran Scholarship for the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Writing Academy. The scholarship covers full tuition for the nearly one-year program for one student. The application and review process is substantial.
The selection committee read the 50-page writing sample submitted by the inaugural scholarship recipient in the Spring of 2016. We were blown away. I wanted to write to her immediately: “Good afternoon. We will need the rest of your manuscript at once in order to make our decision. Please forward that to us….yesterday!” Yes, it was that good.
The recipient? Anna Burke. The book? Compass Rose.
Almost two years to the day of accepting her scholarship at the GCLS Annual Conference, Compass Rose was released by Bywater Books.
Finally, I’d get to go on an adventure with Rose, Miranda, and the rest of the crew.
Burke has written a captivating tale that seems to defy genre. It’s part science fiction, part ecofiction, part suspense, part romance. But, rest assured, it is all outstanding.
What really captured my attention back in 2016 was the way Burke simultaneously provided a rich, layered description of the setting and moved directly into the forward action of the story and gave us great insight into the cast of characters. While using a first-person point-of-view.
I often have issues with first-person POV. The limited perspective often keeps things too at the surface. It lacks depth in character and narrative. But Burke doesn’t fall into the trappings of first-person POV. She infuses her titular character, Compass Rose, with the kind of detailed observational and story-telling skills that would make most of us envious. Not a detail is lost. This makes sense as Rose is a navigator. She is responsible for taking in the details of her surroundings to keep her ship and its crew out of harm’s way. It’s fitting that Rose tells the story.
The cast of characters is diverse and interesting. Burke has filled her novel with characters who are varied both in physical attributes and personality. While there are a great many characters within Compass Rose, they are each distinct and have a particular purpose throughout the book. Rose richly describes each of the players in her story…because it’s important. The growth and development of the characters is integral to the story and to Rose’s own growth. How she views the world around her is directly influenced by how she views the others within that world, and vice versa. (For the record, I really like Kraken.)
Stories set in a future time period pose an interesting set of traps for an author. This is a world that is unknown, unseen. Thus, it is the job of the author to build that world for the readers. I’ve often see authors fall into two of the bigger trappings of creating a futuristic world: skimming the surface of describing the setting (“It’s not real anyway, so I don’t need to worry about it being believable”) or over-narrating the setting (“It’s not real, so I need to give every little detail down to the atom for people to believe it”). Burke deftly avoids these traps. More than providing the reader with the physical details of her surroundings, Rose also provides the emotional impact of her surroundings. The sight of a jellyfish in a bio-light tube doesn’t bring forth a detailed physical description of the jellyfish or a drawn-out explanation of a bio-light tube. Instead, it works right into the character’s thoughts, actions, and reactions…with just enough information for us to imagine the setting. When summoned by Admiral Comita, we learn much about Rose, her surroundings, her situation, and her thoughts in these 3 sentences as she makes her way to the admiral’s quarters:
A tiny jellyfish pulsed in the bio-light tube nearest my head. I paused to examine it, wondering how it had escaped the filters. Maybe, I reasoned, Comita had caught wind of a jelly swarm and wanted my advice about the best way to avoid it – except that she had a perfectly qualified night shift navigator on deck who was more than capable of avoiding a swarm.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs. (pg. 12)
This is outstanding story-telling.
Compass Rose is an epic adventure. Rose and the crew of the Man o’ War embark on a journey that will change their world. It’s dangerous. It’s always changing. “Plan A” doesn’t always work out. There are twists and turns. There were, at minimum, 5 moments as I was reading that I said “I did not see that coming.” The ability to tell a plausible story – set in a futuristic world of high adventure and intrigue – and still successfully shock the reader is a true testament to Burke’s writing skills.
While there is an undercurrent of romance in Compass Rose, it should not be classified in that genre. In fact, I thought the blurb on the back of the book might have been overstating the romantic aspect until I was well into the story. What’s lovely is that the attraction and sexual tension between and among characters is organic and fully woven into the fabric of the story. And, quite honestly, “happily-ever-after” is never a foregone conclusion. I understand there will be a sequel…perhaps that is when the HEA will happen. But the HEA is not necessary here. If Burke gives us another rip-roaring adventure, I’ll be happy.
Bywater Books offers Compass Rose in paperback and eBook formats. In my opinion, however, this is a book you want to hold in your hands. The book itself has a particular feel to it. At 361 pages, Compass Rose is a hefty novel. It’s weighty both in size and in content. The covering of the book is a matte finish, rather than glossy, adding physical texture to the literary texture of the words within. This is a book that deserves a bookmark. A real bookmark. Not a scrap of paper, hastily snatched from a side table. Not an electronic marker on a screen. And, Sappho forbid, not a dog-eared page. And, golly, it sure looks good on a shelf.