Published: 4th May 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Racism, attempted rape
Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise, though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese people aren’t allowed into America.
But Val has to get on that ship. Her twin brother, Jamie, who has spent two long years at sea, is on board, as is an influential circus owner. Thankfully, there’s not much a trained acrobat like Val can’t overcome when she puts her mind to it.
As a stowaway, Val should keep her head down and stay out of sight. But the clock is ticking and she has just seven days as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic to find Jamie, audition for the circus owner, and convince him to help get them both into America.
Then one night, the unthinkable happens, and suddenly Val’s dreams of a new life are crushed under the weight of the only thing that matters: survival.
This is a fun and immensely character-driven book that exudes energy and adorable quirkiness. Set against the backdrop of the infamous voyage of the Titanic, it sheds light on one of the disaster’s lesser known aspects and delivers a moving portrayal of sibling relationships right up until the inevitable, yet so effective, emotional conclusion.
The characters are front and centre of everything and so that does mean plot development does at times have to play second fiddle, leading to slightly inconsistent pacing. However, the writing more than makes up for that, often bringing a smile to your face with a witty turn of phrase or an amusing piece of dialogue. In doing so, it gives the story a real sense of personality.
As the Titanic prepares to set sail for the first and indeed only time, Valora Luck is on a mission to reunite with her twin brother Jamie, who is aboard the ship along with several of his associates. Using the acrobatic skills she has gained as a circus performer, she manages to stow away, posing as widowed first class passenger Amberley Sloane.
She eventually tracks Jamie down, but to her surprise he is unwilling to move with her to the United States, where the Chinese Exclusion Act is currently in force. Not to be deterred, Valora learns that the circus organiser Albert Alkany Stewart is on the ship, and she makes Jamie agree that if they can somehow convince Mr Stewart that they are worth hiring as performers, he will join her after all.
Having to maintain her disguise as Mrs Sloane, she finds an ally in the shape of fashion designer April Hart, who asks Valora to wear her creations so they get noticed by other passengers. Valora also grows attached to Jamie’s travelling companions, and discovers some unwelcome truths about their parents, who have both recently passed away.
The historical context of this story was fascinating, with the Exclusion Act and the sad way in which Chinese people were seen as being of an inferior class; a fact that takes on even greater relevance towards the end when the protagonists are scrambling for a lifeboat to escape the sinking ship. Indeed, class divisions are ongoing theme throughout, with snobbery rife and passengers deemed to be of a lower status not allowed to enter certain areas.
It gets off to an entertaining start and the risk of Valora being discovered as a stowaway provides it with that little bit of suspense, and while the plot is rather thin on the ground there was enough to make me feel invested. The only thing that felt out of place was the romance, which arrived suddenly and contained a hint of insta-love.
The entire book is written in the first person and told from Valora’s point of view, and she is quite a character. Along with possessing some interesting talents and a little bit of sass where necessary, she is above all honest and good humoured with a deep devotion to her family, which made it very easy to root for her. The way she interacted with other characters was sometimes an absolute joy to read.
In comparison, Jamie is much more reserved and comes across as quite a deep thinker, which still makes him likeable but in a slightly different way. Olly and Wink were both fun, especially when assisting Valora during her juggling routines, and you really grow to care for them by the end. Meanwhile, Bo and Fong have interesting backstories that could have been developed slightly more.
Given the divisions that existed on the Titanic, the characters are extremely diverse bunch. Along with Valora, the most entertaining one was undoubtedly April, who brought so much effervescence whenever she appeared on the page. Charlotte was also a nice surprise and I loved her relationship with Jamie; a welcome antidote to the attitudes of other passengers in first class.
There is a map of the Titanic at the beginning of the book that comes in very useful, as the various parts of the ship all have a role to play and author takes this into consideration for every scene. It is not full of descriptive prose, but Valora’s narration helps provide the necessary atmosphere, and the whole dynamic of the setting changes when the disaster strikes.
The writing is a delight, mixing frivolity with moments of genuine urgency. It contains some great similes and metaphors along with a very endearing use of Cockney rhyming slang, and what arguably captures the spirit of the story more than anything is the scene towards the end where Valora and Jamie are in mortal danger but are still teasing one another. In a way, that makes the ending even more emotional.
Overall, this is an engaging read where the focus on captivating characters and a playful writing style leave their mark and prevent a somewhat staggered plot from becoming a major problem. It impressively explores some interesting themes and uses historical events to weave together a great story, with Valora the ideal guide.
A writer of historical and contemporary fiction primarily aimed at young adults, Stacey Lee has published five novels, beginning with her debut Under A Painted Sky in 2015. She has received critical acclaim more recently with The Downstairs Girl in 2019, before releasing Luck Of The Titanic in 2021.
Born in Southern California and of Chinese descent, Lee is a founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement.
A very enjoyable book in terms of the writing and character development. The plot and the romance are both not perfect, but for the most part I liked it a lot.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5