Owen Wedgwood is a talented chef for Lord Ramsey, one of the major shareholders in the successful Pendleton Trading Company. Wedgwood is kidnapped when a dinner party to which Ramsey had been invited and to which he took Wedgwood in the capacity of chef de cuisine, is interrupted by the appearance of Mad Hannah Mabbot, a feared and fearsome pirate captain. Mabbot dispatches Ramsey to the devil and after tasting the meal, decides to make off with the cook for her own benefit. Wedgwood is horrified by his fate as a prisoner on the pirate ship as it heads off into the deep blue sea; he thinks of his late wife and his late employer, and tries to come up with a plan to escape these murderous rogues. When he is summoned to Mad Hannah's presence, he finds out the terms of his survival. Just as Westley in The Princess Bride is told that the Dread Pirate Roberts will "most likely kill you in the morning," our pudgy, prudish, and rather bumbling chef is told that he must create a unique and exquisite meal, concocted almost entirely from the meager stores aboard ship, for the captain once a week or he will suffer her wrath and face a long swim home, either whole or in pieces depending on the depth of her disappointment. Aside from having no choice whatsoever, Owen has his professional pride at stake and he agrees to the devil's bargain.
Wedge, as he comes to be called, tells of his incarceration on the ship, his attempts to coax something edible from the hard tack and weevil-ridden flour stores, his culinary creativity, and his dawning realization that there is more to the flame haired captain and her zeal in hunting down and destroying the Pendleton ships than he ever imagined in the splotched and hidden journal in which he confides most nights. As time passes, his first impressions of the crew and her captain are softened and humanized and he finds his own feelings about the raids on the Pendleton ships doing a volte face once he understands the reasons better. There is a fair bit of rollicking fun to be had in the adventures of the Flying Rose and her crew. There's also murder and plotting, high seas treachery, a saboteur, eccentric crew members, chasing after an elusive pirate called the Brass Fox, a jail break, trying to elude the notice of Laroche and his diabolically clever inventions, and over the top entertaining romps through the oceans of the world. In short, this is a perfect pirate tale.
But it is the something more than a pirate tale here that really elevates the novel. Brown touches on the history of the British tea trade and the effects that the forced introduction of opium has on the Chinese. There are the politics of social justice and the importance of family loyalty included as well. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out and quirky. With a passionate, determined, and charismatic female captain and a perpetually disapproving, tight-laced, often incompetent male chef, Brown has inverted the expected roles for men and women with the former in the role of nurturer and the latter in the role of adventurer. The slow revelation of Mabbot's motivations, her true character, and her deep-seated integrity don't mitigate her unforgiving vigilante justice or compensate for the gritty and terrible bloodbaths but they do add a dimension not often seen with respect to pirates or ascribed to women, especially those in 1819. Brown describes the meals that Wedge creates for the lady pirate as both exotic and in lushly sexual terms. And even though there is a slow developing romance involved, the larger part of the novel is over the top and humorous even as it touches on politics and morality. These are pirates (and a chef) like you've never seen before and the novel is a fun and fabulous read.