Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key is a high fantasy novel authored by the late Kage Baker. I found this title at my local library, fell in love with the cover, and found the premise to be relatively interesting, so I snagged it. After reading it, however, I felt disappointed and quite frustrated with the finale.
Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key revolves around a dude named John James who was formerly a bricklayer until he was constricted to fight a war. After the war, he participated in a spot of piracy, realised that it didn’t pay nearly as well as he had hoped, and returned home to Jamaica where he planned on using his meagre funds to return to the business of bricklaying. However, before he can get his life started, he is determined to fulfil his comrade’s dying wish, which was to deliver a letter to his mistress. Upon delivering the letter, Mr James ends up getting shanghaied in an unusual treasure hunt, thus further postponing his business ambitions.
The novel has many fantastic elements to it that make it a bonafide high fantasy classic, such as loads of swashbuckling adventure and action, brutal oceanic storms, shipwrecks, and plenty of ulterior motives to keep you on your toes. The descriptions of the settings—whether it’s on the ship, an island, or in a city—are marvellous and provide an excellent sense of escapism, transporting the reader to those locations. These were things that immediately drew me into the book and kept my focus until the very end.
In addition to the fantasy aspects, we have a black character who is an emancipated slave, that I feel is a very relevant character, especially in today’s climate where people of colour are seen to be worth less than mud. His commentary on how white people, especially white people who’ve lost everything, have the gall to compare that experience as akin to being enslaved were some of my favourite parts. He is also an American-born individual who has to deal with people calling him African when he has no association at all that makes him feel like he’s an African person. He identifies as American, and this is something else that plenty of Western-born people of colour can relate to. However, his presence does lead to some racist dialogue and commentary that I believe some readers will find to be uncomfortable. Given that the book takes place in the 18th or 19th century, I felt that it did fit the beliefs and attitudes of the time period, making it more authentic, and that it wasn’t written as such to be purposefully offensive or harmful, or written out of ignorance.
Authenticity is another aspect that I absolutely adored. The way the book is written makes it quite accessible, yet it doesn’t sacrifice the ease of consumption for atmospheric surroundings. What I mean by that is that the book uses language, prose, and dialogue that also matches the era, as well as life as a sailor and pirate, rather brilliantly, further encapsulating you in the aura of what it must have been like to be this type of person during the respective period. When books take that extra step at raising the level of validity to their narratives, particularly historical ones, I find that I tend to enjoy the reading experience much more.
Even with all of the goodness, Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key is far from perfect. For example, it is predictable. The way that the Mistress character is written pretty much tells you within the first twenty pages how everything else is going to pan out overall. A large part of me keep rooting to be surprised and hoping to be wrong, yet when I inevitably reached the end and discovered that I was very much correct in my assumptions, I felt fairly frustrated and wholly disappointed by it. That essence of being able to foresee everything really sucked all of the suspense and most of the fun out of the story.
Another severe hindrance to the fun swashbuckling shenanigans was the main character himself. There is a secondary character in the book who is a shitty, manipulative human being. Mr James has his suspicions about this person but continues to give them the benefit of the doubt over and over again. At one point, I began to wonder if people really are so dumb that they bend over at the simplest most insincere charm, or bit of attention. Like, really? Really? What made it worse is that the shitty character never ever gets their comeuppance… ever.
That was the biggest qualm I had. Other minor titbits to keep in mind include the pacing, which is quite slow. I felt baffled by how slowly the book read given all of the action that it was packed with. Also, the finale… in a way it fits the narrative as a whole, but I still hated it and wholeheartedly wished it could have been different. Lastly, the book does focus a bit on religion at a very specific point, and it came off as being very anti-Atheist. I can’t say that this part felt like it was trying to be respectful to the era because its craftmanship felt like it stemmed more from ignorance than anything else. So, if you identify as an Atheist, or if you identify as someone who does not believe in organised religion, I would keep that in mind while reading and prepare accordingly.
Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key isn’t a bad book to read, especially if you are fond of high fantasy novels. Just be wary of some of things that may make your reading experience a tad bit aggravating. Since I did hate the ending as much as I did, I knocked my rating down by half a star.