If you’re looking for a thrilling pirate fantasy for your next read, look no further than The Wicked Bargain by Gabe Cole Novoa! All of us at Rich in Color enjoyed reading this soaring tale of the high seas, featuring a trans pirate with magical powers and a desperate mission. If you haven’t read The Wicked Bargain already, we definitely recommend it! And if you have, read on for our group discussion following this book description:
El Diablo is in the details in this Latinx pirate fantasy starring a transmasculine nonbinary teen with a mission of revenge, redemption, and revolution.
On Mar León-de la Rosa’s 16th birthday, el Diablo comes calling. Mar is a transmasculine nonbinary teen pirate hiding a magical ability to manipulate fire and ice. But their magic isn’t enough to reverse a wicked bargain made by their father and now el Diablo has come to collect his payment: the soul of Mar’s father and the entire crew of their ship.
When Mar is miraculously rescued by the sole remaining pirate crew in the Caribbean, el Diablo returns to give them a choice: give up your soul to save your father by the Harvest Moon or never see him again. The task is impossible–Mar refuses to make a bargain and there’s no way their magic is any match for el Diablo. Then, Mar finds the most unlikely allies: Bas, an infuriatingly arrogant and handsome pirate — and the captain’s son; and Dami, a genderfluid demonio whose motives are never quite clear. For the first time in their life, Mar may have the courage to use their magic. It could be their only redemption — or it could mean certain death.
NOTE: Major spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read The Wicked Bargain yet, go read it and then come back! This discussion post will be here when you’re done.
Before we begin – I want to hear how you read The Wicked Bargain: book, ebook, audiobook? And how was your reading experience? Did you enjoy this pirate adventure?
Jessica: Like I did with Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert (our last group discussion book!), I did a sort of hybrid reading experience. I listened to the audiobook to get started – I was drawn to the fact that Vico Ortiz was narrating, whose tiktoks I am obsessed with – and then when I got really sucked in and was impatient to find out what happened next, I switched to reading the book. And ohmygosh, how much fun it was! Did you all have fun reading?
Crystal: I read it as an e-book on a tablet. That is a way that is growing on me as it is easily searchable and if I don’t know a word, it’s super easy to jump to a definition. Now that you’ve mentioned the narrator, I kind of want to hear at least some of the audio.
K. Imani: As always I read the hardcover and was enchanted the entire time. The cover is beautiful and really, to me, set the mood of the novel. I was so drawn into the story and felt like I was really in the world that Gabe Cole Novoa created.
Audrey: I also got myself the hardcover! I curled up with the book on my couch over a weekend and really enjoyed it. It’s been a long time since I read anything pirate-adjacent, so it was a lot of fun to get caught up in it.
What stood out to me when I first started reading was the use of Spanish seamlessly integrated throughout the dialogue. How did you feel it impacted the narrative and/or your reading experience?
Audrey: I remember enough of my high school and college Spanish that I could decipher most of it with context clues (and one use of google translate). I really appreciate it when characters with multilingual narrators use multiple languages—it makes for a richer experience. I’m glad the author, Gabe Cole Novoa, used so much Spanish. As Novoa points out in his author note, most of the famous pirate stories I hear don’t include Latinx pirates, so it was refreshing to have that in The Wicked Bargain and have the characters speak Spanish and resist the colonial government while having magical pirate adventures.
K. Imani: I absolutely loved having the Spanish in there as it created an authentic world. Being among many Spanish speakers all day, I’m used to folks (mainly my students) switching between English and Spanish to get their meaning across, so reading the mixing of languages felt normal to me. There are so many people in our world who are bilingual and it should be reflected in our reading. I remember reading a book with my students where Spanish was included, rather than translated, and they loved it. When I read aloud and came across Spanish words I didn’t know how to pronounce, I asked the students for help. This cross cultural communication that we had allowed for a bond to be created and for students to see their everyday lives, communication in a mixture of Spanish and English, reflected on the page. I feel that having Spanish in The Wicked Bargain, and not translated, can give readers the same experience.
Jessica: This actually reminded me of another fantasy book I love, Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan, which incorporated Mandarin and other languages throughout, really giving a lot of nuance to the story. I’m always a fan of books that are multilingual, and I felt that it fit The Wicked Bargain perfectly – especially given the setting and characters. It also reminds me of this quote from Rochita Loenen-Ruiz on using italics for non-English terms: “Reading this and considering italics as a form of apology, I find myself thinking of writers coming from countries that have endured colonization, from countries where English is an imposed tongue. I find myself asking: do we really need to explain everything to the imagined Western reader? I think of italics, apologies and explanations, and the connecting line between these words.”
Crystal: I appreciate books that include multiple languages. Having multiple languages in a text or conversation is the way many people communicate and as you referenced Jessica, it’s often a reflection of a people’s history and the mixing of languages has happened. Just today I was reading the introduction to Jesse Q. Sutanto’s Dial A for Aunties where she explains that writing with multiple languages is a reflection of her heritage and the sacrifices her family made for the survival of their children. When I read books with multiple languages, I’m glad that they exist for those that have a similar lived experience. I either understand or I don’t, but I prefer that stories aren’t bogged down with constant explanations. If I’m curious enough, I look it up. Using the linking feature in the e-book, I did learn a few curse words my Spanish textbooks had not included and I would count that as a win.
Mar is the star of the book, but there is quite a cast in The Wicked Bargain, all with their own stories and motivations – from Dami and Tito to Eralia and Bas. Did you have a favorite character?
K. Imani: Aside from Mar, Dami was my second favorite too. I feel like Dami pushed Mar to be who they were not because of what Dami needed Mar for, but for the potential they saw in Mar. My heart broke for Dami when we learned their backstory, but I loved how they dealt with the hand they were given and how they fought back. I also truly loved how Dami looked different every time they visited Mar and felt it was a perfect explanation of gender fluidity.
Jessica: My favorite character has to be Tito – a true friend in an unexpected place! I have a soft spot for older characters who support the teen main character. I love an intergenerational friendship! I loved Mar’s father for the same reason, someone who always believed in and supported Mar, and even sacrificed so much for them.
Crystal: I too appreciated Tito, but I also really enjoyed Dami. Dami annoyed Mar, but also provided a lot of opportunities to think about possibilities beyond the moment and the perceived reality. In some ways, Dami helped Mar to dream bigger and think about what life could be.
Audrey: Tito and Dami were great characters, but I also had a soft spot for Bas. I thought his and Mar’s developing relationship was cute and just on the right side of playful antagonism for me. Plus, I have a fascination for maps, so that was a plus. I was very intrigued by Graciela and Eralia—I’d love to know more about their history about resisting the Spanish government!
When Mar enters the Catholic church, they feel uneasy, noting that the knowledge that the church is abandoned “doesn’t make them feel any better about standing in the building of an organization brought by the very colonizers who killed so many of Mar’s ancestors and eradicated the acceptance of people like Mar. People who don’t neatly fit in the category of man or woman.” And near the end, it’s revealed that el Diablo and the captain of the Spanish army are one and the same. What did you think of this twist?
Jessica: This twist really got me. I absolutely wasn’t expecting, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. As I was reading, especially as we learned more about Dami, I was struck by the parallels between Dami and Mar. Dami was free to express their genderfluidity as a demonio and Mar initially distrusts them, but when I learned that Dami had been taken by el Diablo as a baby and was trying to break free, I realized that Dami and Mar had quite a few parallels. It really spoke to how colonization inflicts violence of all kinds on people – literal violence and the violence of oppression, which takes so many forms, such as stifling different forms of gender identity.
K. Imani: I was blown away by the twist as well, but then realized it made perfect sense, especially in the light of why Mar’s father and the crew of the La Ana were pirates. They were taking back what was stolen from their people and sharing the wealth that the colonizers had taken. I feel having el Diablo be the captain of the Spanish army was genius as the horrors that were inflicted on the Indigenous peoples was truly evil. I had to pause at that moment in the story and just revel in this beautiful metaphor.
Crystal: I too was not expecting that twist, but it really did seem like it was completely logical. To take the souls of others requires a feeling of superiority that definitely fits in with colonization and the oppression that goes with it. I was glad that we were able to finally get Dami’s back story.
Audrey: I was delighted by the reveal of el Diablo—it made perfect sense within the world of The Wicked Bargain. The scenes in the abandoned church gave Mar the chance to think about what they personally suffered under colonial rule and what that whole area of the world lost on a wider scale. The church as a meeting location for the resistance forces also underscored that resisting was important, even if a loss on the colonial side wasn’t automatically an equal gain for the colonized. I think the author did a great job of threading in these kind of moments throughout the book.
When Mar takes on el Diablo, Mar realizes that they are their father’s legacy, and that’s their strength. How did you react to that moment? What did you think of Mar’s character arc as a whole, and the role of magia throughout?
Crystal: It just reaffirmed how much love was between father and child. That selfless act saved Mar not once, but for all time. I really enjoyed seeing Mar learn more about themself and their magia and begin to have more trust in their own abilities. It was a beautiful thing to imagine.
Jessica: Okay, I did tear up at this moment. It was so powerful. You could really feel Mar’s love for their father – and their father’s love for Mar – in that statement. Thematically, I think it really highlighted how generations of people have been rising up and fighting for justice. It felt like such a fitting culmination of Mar’s love for themself, as they fell in love with Bas, found support in a pirate crew, and embraced their own magia.
K. Imani: You know that meme where the guy is lying in bed holding his phone with a smile on his face, that was me at that part. I was so proud of Mar in that moment for using their wits to take on el Diablo and found the strength to defeat him. It really was a perfect conclusion to Mar’s arc because it encompassed how Mar’s relationship with their father was crucial in the development of their identity and their comfort with the magia. While Mar is uncomfortable using magia, the support they receive from their father allowed Mar to feel safe. Tapping into that sense of safety and love and using that to defeat the devil was beautiful.
Audrey: I’m such a sucker for exact wording in magical contracts leading to loopholes and the love of family, so the final showdown with el Diablo was incredibly satisfying to me. I wished we knew a little more about how Mar’s magia worked—and the island filled with other people who have magia!–but I’m content with what we got. I think Mar’s relationship with their magia tied in well with the other themes in the book, and I loved how it was used throughout.
And as is tradition, let’s talk about our next read! What is the next book by a BIPOC author that you’re excited to read?
Jessica: I’m super excited to read If You Still Recognize Me by Cynthia So and Self-Made Boys by Anna-Marie McLemore.
Crystal: I’m looking forward to Fake Dates and Mooncakes by Sher Lee and Her Good Side by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Oh, and I still really need to get to Harvest House by Cynthia Leitich Smith. So many books and not enough time for all of them. It’s a good problem to have though.
K. Imani: Oh my, you should see my TBR pile. It’s a little tooo high and I almost don’t know what to read next. I am looking forward to Ibi Zoboi’s Nigeria Jones, which I’m reading for this month’s review.
Audrey: I’ve also got a huge TBR pile, and Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao and Ride or Die by Gail-Agnes Musikavanhu are two books that are near the top. Not sure which one will win out yet, but I’m looking forward to both.