Sea Serpents, Cake, and the Power of Laughter: Running Close to the Wind by Alexandra Rowland

Posted 9th June 2024 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 2 Comments

Running Close to the Wind by Alexandra Rowland
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown bi/pansexual MC, brown non-binary love interest with one eye, bi/pansexual love interest
Protagonist Age: 30s?
PoV: Third-person, past-tense
Published on: 11th June 2024

A queer pirate fantasy standalone adventure by Alexandra Rowland, the author of A Taste of Gold and Iron

"Come for the irrepressible gremlin of a narrator, stay for the plot-relevant cake competitions! A whip-smart, hilarious and exuberant high seas romp."—Freya Marske, Sunday Times bestselling author of A Marvellous Light

A LitHub most anticipated book of 2024

Avra Helvaçi, former field agent of the Araşti Ministry of Intelligence, has accidentally stolen the single most expensive secret in the world—and the only place to flee with a secret that big is the open sea.

To find a buyer with deep enough pockets, Avra must ask for help from his on-again, off-again ex, the pirate Captain Teveri az-Ḥaffār. They are far from happy to see him, but together, they hatch a plan: take the information to the isolated pirate republic of the Isles of Lost Souls, fence it, profit. The only things in their way? A calculating new Araşti ambassador to the Isles of Lost Souls who’s got his eyes on Avra’s every move; Brother Julian, a beautiful, mysterious new member of the crew with secrets of his own and a frankly inconvenient vow of celibacy; the fact that they’re sailing straight into sea serpent breeding season and almost certain doom.

But if they can find a way to survive and sell the secret on the black market, they’ll all be as wealthy as kings—and, more important, they’ll be legends.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~blue dogs
~spooky dildos
~cruel, cruel possums
~laughing till it hurts, then laughing some more
~comedy that will convert you to anarchism

Every time I think Rowland can’t possibly get any better, they go ahead and OUTDO THEMSELF AGAIN!

(A brief note: if you fell in love with A Taste of Gold and Iron, then a) you have great taste and b) you need to know that Running Close to the Wind is a very different kind of book. It is equally (if not, dare I say, EVEN MORE) excellent! But where AToGaI is very sensual and luxurious and full of yearning, Running Close to the Wind is cheeky and exciting and utterly shameless, and I think it’s best to know that going in. I adore both, and I think many others will too, but you do have to shift gears and appreciate Running Close to the Wind for what it is, not go comparing it to AToGaI. That way lies only disappointment, and that would be a tragedy, because if you embrace Running Close to the Wind and judge it only on its own merits, it will light you up with so much joy that you will shine like a STAR.)

Running Close to the Wind is fundamentally FUN. It is essentially fun, and I do not mean that in the sense of, when you boil it down RCttW is nothing but fun – because it is not, there’s a whole lot of other really great stuff in there, rage and philosophy and critiquing power structures and a beautifully blasphemous coat. What I mean is, fun is essential to the make-up of RCttW.

RCttW is a vessel helmed by hilarity. It sails upon a sea of silliness. It is packed to the absolute gills with glee. When I said it’s a fundamentally fun book, I was being wholly literal: fun is fundamental to the structure, plot, tone, characters, messaging and execution of RCttW.


“Listen, though, I can’t decide–do you think Tev would like it if you delivered me to them hogtied?”


“Hello, incandescent one,” Avra said adoringly, lying hogtied at Teveri’s feet on the deck of their ship.

I giggled so much reading this book. When I talked about it with the hubby, I only managed to get through a description of the first chapter before we were both laughing too hard for me to continue. IF YOU WANT A SMASHING, SPARKLING, SIDE-SPLITTING GOOD TIME, THEN MY DEARS, I REALLY CANNOT RECOMMEND RUNNING CLOSE TO THE WIND STRONGLY ENOUGH!

What is it that makes it so funny??? The main character, Avra, is definitely a huge part of it; he is a chaotic trash-goblin with no shame whatsoever, a scrawny, self-professed trollop who is absolutely willing to Cause Problems to get his way (or get some attention)(or when he’s bored).

“You want me to not cause problems. But you see, Markefa, I have decided to cause problems.”

He is ridiculous and over-the-top and semi-manic all the time, and I love him with my whole entire heart.

“So now they’re expecting you to cause problems.”

Avra mulled on this.

“Think of how irritated they would be if you did such a good job that everyone was really nice to you. They’d hate that, no?”

“They would hate that,” Avra agreed, still transfixed in her gaze. “Yes. Yes. I will cause…different problems.”

There’s also the fact that he maybe-probably-definitely has been blessed by a goddess of luck after beating one of her priests at cards, allowing Rowland to arrange the most brilliant and impossible coincidences around him. (Nothing that affects the free will of others, which is a detail I noticed and appreciated a lot, but distractions happening at just the right moment to allow him to sneak past a guard, that kind of thing.) I wouldn’t say the plot relies on these coincidences – coincidence-driven plot might be annoying after a while – but they do add to the plot marvellously, in the same way that sprinkles are not strictly speaking necessary on ice-cream, but do make it indisputably better.

And the fact that Avra himself is extremely sceptical of his so called ‘witchy-luck’??? Honestly makes it even funnier.

“I have a sparkling personality,” Avra said. “I have bags of charisma.”

“Bags of it,” Markefa said, because she was arguably Avra’s best friend on the whole crew. “Bags and bags of charisma you scrounged out of a rubbish heap and carry around with you in damp burlap bags.”

This man gets into arguments with his not-tarot deck, okay, I love him.

“You made a suspicious face when you drew the first card,” Teveri said. “And you drew three.”

“You don’t need to know what the first one was, it’s not relevant. Don’t change the subject! He’s definitely guilty of something–”

“Thought the first card is usually the most relevant one.”

“The deck was being bitchy! It was a fun little joke!”

What else? There’s Avra’s very non-traditional dynamic with Taveri, the non-binary pirate captain; their relationship may be on-and-off-again, but their dynamic remains, regardless of context, annoyed-but-aroused dominant and the brattiest bratty submissive you could possibly imagine. Avra worships the ground Taveri walks on, needs (and demands) their constant attention (what kind of attention doesn’t matter in the slightest), and wants nothing more than to be allowed to sleep on the floor next to Taveri’s bed after sex. Taveri finds Avra infuriating, impossible to predict, and is slightly disgusted with their own taste re finding Avra attractive at all.

Drop into the mix one Julian–

“Does anyone know who or what a Julian is? Teveri asked me to bring one to them.”

–an impossibly sexy monk who is very much aware of his sex appeal and is so very ready to use it to manipulate others or just to wind up Avra, regardless of his vow of chastity (which he is very unfairly sticking to despite, you know, wielding his sex appeal like a weapon). Both Taveri and Avra are attracted to him – hells, everyone with any attraction to men is attracted to Julian – but where Taveri wants the sexy (and very educated) monk to make sense of the expensive secret Avra (very accidentally) stole, Avra does not trust Julian as far as he could throw him.

“He will betray us all. He will decode the science into small words that you and I can understand, Tev, and then he will do something shocking with it. We cannot predict what someone that pretty is going to do. We don’t know how the minds of pretty people work, Tev. He could decide to do anything and we would never see it coming.”

(Which would not be far, what with Avra being a scrawny ‘rat-faced’ little thing and Julian being something of a Viking.)

Honestly, any one of these characters – Avra, Teveri, and Julian – would be enough to carry a normal book all by themselves. The three of them together??? Is the literary equivalent of the philosopher’s stone, turning everything they touch into gold and granting their names (and Rowland’s) immortality. No one in their world will forget them, and I seriously doubt any reader ever will either!

And there’s yet more to wax poetic (jester-ic?) about: the setting. All but two of Rowland’s books so far have been set in the same world, so if you’ve read other novels of Rowland’s you may pick up on some Easter eggs, but Running Close to the Wind is tied particularly closely to A Taste of Gold and Iron – in some ways you could argue that RCttW is a sequel of sorts. It’s definitely a companion. Avra is from the kingdom featured in AToGaI, and the secret he stole is the one (one of the ones) the characters of AToGaI are concerned about.

But we are not in the kingdom of AToGaI; we are in the Isles of Lost Souls, which is the closest thing pirates as a demographic have to a town or communal home base. And the Isles are a freaking delight. To reach them, a ship must navigate around the giant (and I mean GIANT) turtles that surround the Isles, and the various (human) ghosts who haunt said turtles! There is a Street of Flowers, populated by sex workers who all adore Avra; there is a tavern inside what ought to be the holiest site of a major religion; there is a retired pirate slowly carving a cliff into a giant skull just because. Rowland’s approach has clearly been of the bigger, better, bolder, MORE variety, loudly asking why not??? when creating their pirates and their society. Yes, haunted giant turtles! Yes, blasphemous taverns! Yes, skull-cliffs!

And the BAKING COMPETITION. The importance of the baking competition to everyone on the Isles! Yes, it’s inherently funny to imagine a bunch of pirates engaged in a baking competition, obviously, that is objectively a whimsical flavour of hilarious. But it’s the fact that the competition MATTERS! It isn’t a joke! It’s deadly serious, and not in the way that invites the reader to poke fun at how seriously someone is taking a stupid thing. Because the competition is not a stupid thing. It’s a Cultural Event. It matters. And that is so very marvellous; that is so much better than it being a stupid thing for us to laugh at. I mean, I did laugh, and you will too, but not mockingly. I laughed out of delight, and I loved that the baking competition, its existence and the fact that it matters, the fact that it is not a stupid thing, makes the pirates people. Up until the competition, it is so clear that Avra and Teveri and Julian are people; the crew of Teveri’s ship are people; the not-exactly-pirates we interact with are all people.

But the baking competition says that all the pirates are people. Because they have culture. They have an art form that is unique to them, that their entire community is deeply invested in. They’re not just background characters. See, ‘pirate’ is a cool fantasy template that many, many people enjoy immensely. We have so many movies about them, we dress up as them for Halloween, we have pirate-themed weddings! We love pirates. But pirates are (usually) just pirates. They do not exist outside of traditional pirate-related activities. They vanish from our minds when the adventuring is over. We do not ponder what they do on their months off, and we certainly don’t imagine that there’s any universal pirate culture beyond eye patches and cool hats. But the baking competition examines pirates outside of the template, the stereotype. It says, there is a universal pirate culture, and it involves cake. And if they have culture, then pirates are no longer ‘just’ pirates, only existing while the adventure is ongoing, caring only about plunder. If they have culture, they are people.

Do you see?

“I am building so much character. I am developing a sense of personal dignity, Tev.”

“You are hiding under the bed and chattering.”

“It’s a work in progress.”

Speaking of pirates-as-people – in a lot of ways, I think RCttW is Rowland’s most relatable book yet. Which is an odd thing to say, because: pirates! Sea serpents! Being on the run with the world’s most expensive secret! How relatable can that really be, Sia??? And, like: yeah, true. But.

It’s in how the pirates are, fundamentally, normal people. And I don’t mean normal as in mundane, necessarily – many of them are anything but! – but in how they react to things, the things that they want, the choices they make in situations both fantastical and less so. And the comedy. It isn’t true that humans can always laugh, but we almost always can; under intense stress or in truly horrific situations or in the midst of great tragedy, there will almost always be someone who makes a terrible joke and almost always someone else who laughs far too loudly at it. I am not as funny as Rowland, but I would be laughing when their characters are laughing, were I in the shoes of those characters; I would be cracking jokes (or at least trying to) right alongside Avra, I would be unable not to be sarcastic as fuck about the ridiculous situations Tev’s crew find themselves in, I would be rolling my eyes right alongside Markefa, all gods give her strength. Give me enough M&Ms and I will be almost as much of a ridiculous gremlin as Avra trying to pose alluringly atop a wardrobe!

I’m not a world-travelling storyteller, like the Chants in A Conspiracy of Truths and A Choir of Lies; I’m not a prince or a superhumanly perfect bodyguard-bureaucrat like the main characters of A Taste of Gold and Iron; I don’t have the devotion to the divine required to join the cast of The Lights of Ystrac’s Wood; I certainly can’t write or memorise entire plays like the incredible players and playwrights of Some by Virtue Fall. All of those characters are wonderful, and Rowland is far too good a writer to have made any of them feel distant and strange to me, to not have humanised them and given them plenty for me to empathise with and connect to and adore – and yet.

These pirates, folx. They are my people.

(I should probably find that worrying, but I do not. I am simply charmed.)

“Stupid fucking pond, fuck that pond, I don’t even need to know what it did, all ponds are layabouts and ne’er-do-wells and should have rocks thrown at them.

If this was the entirety of Running Close to the Wind, it would be more than enough. It would still be excellent. It would already be one of my favourite books of the year! Because there is nothing ‘just’ about entertainment, about a book that makes you laugh; you cannot say something is ‘only’ funny, as if being funny is somehow less than. Anything that brings you delight is priceless.

That would be more than enough.

But Running Close to the Wind is more than a bundle of giggles. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that it is comedic, yes, but the type of comedic it is is not fluff, is not forgettable. It is humour that has a lot to say; it is a great deal of meaningful philosophy and political critique and fury at the ways the powerful treat the rest of us, all conveyed through laughter. Running Close to the Wind is a comedy in the style of Terry Pratchett; undeniably, hysterically funny, and utterly enraged at the manifold injustices of the world.

And the effect is startlingly subtle – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Rowland’s righteous anger slips under your skin and is absorbed without your even noticing. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins tells us, and even if you do not consciously notice the incisive dissection of too many injustices going on in RCttW – even if the sugar of humour covers the taste of systemic anger that has grown in response to systemic wrongs – you are absolutely still getting your daily dose of anarchism. No matter how much you loved Kadou and his sister – the royal family in A Taste of Gold and Iron – you will not, cannot walk away from Running Close to the Wind without being firmly convinced that hoarding knowledge is wrong, that killing people for sharing knowledge is wrong, that having so much – maybe any? – power over other people is wrong.

“Town full of outlaws and rebels. Of course we have a newspaper.”

Rowland is punching up with this one. And this is far from the first time these kind of themes have appeared in their work – but I think the punch lands harder when the power behind it is laughter.

There’s something very magical, very important, about that. I don’t know how to articulate it; I’m not sure I’m smart enough to work it out properly. But Running Close to the Wind is not only a manifesto wrapped up in whimsy and wisecracks; it is a case study in the power of comedy – not just the power to land those punches, but also the power to spread or teach different ways of thinking, the power to make a reader receive the message beaming out of the pages. Because a lot of the time, that sort of thing fails! Many, MANY storytellers don’t manage to get their message through to the people who come to their stories, and many of those who do do so clumsily, heavy-handedly, drowning us in the dreaded info-dump. And I can’t be the only person who has previously dismissed comedy as a genre – there are exceptions, there are individual storytellers and individual comedians and so on, but as a genre, I am used to passing on stories that try to be funny, because (and I am speaking only from personal experience here, I have no proper data on this) most of the time, funny is fluff. Most of the time, funny is forgettable.

But not when it’s done right. Not when it’s done GREAT. Great comedy stays with you; who can forget the moments when they laughed so hard they cried? I remember every stand-up comedian who’s managed to make me do that, and I remember what they said, and because they were truly great they were not talking fluff. They talked about deeply important things and they made me laugh while they did it, and because they made me laugh I went home with their takes engraved on my funny bone.

(So to speak. The funny bone isn’t actually a bone, it’s – you know what? Another time. Or you can look it up!)

There’s nothing wrong with fluff comedy. Giving someone joy, even if just for a moment, even if ‘just’ about something ‘silly’, is something we will always need in the world. We don’t value it like we should. But I think it is true that comedy which is not fluff can be even more powerful than a moment of joy, and I don’t think I realised that until I read this book and thought about how and why I’d laughed, and at what, and then started thinking about all the other comedy that has really and truly stuck with me, and what effect it (both book and other not-fluff comedy) has had on me.

“Speaking as one man to another: Ugh. Men.”

And because Rowland does nothing by halves when they can instead do 150% of everything (which they do EVERY TIME, how, I don’t even, HOW) there is, amidst all the laughter, so many moments that will make you ache. Tev’s backstory, and their yearning to make a name for themself, to create a legacy. Avra’s very real fear of his own people, now that he’s stolen what he stole (by accident!!!) Julian’s long, hard look at his religion and its human-made structure. The very real emotions, especially the tenderness, that grows between them; and the salt-in-the-raw-wound pain when they try and fail at something desperately important. The scene with the stolen sausage, and what we learn about Avra thereby.

So yes, I laughed until I cried, many, MANY times – but sometimes I had to put the book down and just breathe because my heart ached, or my stomach was knotted up with anxiety for these ridiculous characters I’d fallen so hard for, or I was so fucking MAD at the stupidity and arrogance and sheer undeserved power of the powerful.

None of that was made lesser by the fundamental fun of the story. It did not undercut the emotion; if anything, the laughter anchored it, made it feel so much more real, almost – no, no almost, simply made all the ache-hurt-love-rage-gasp painfully human.

Not almost painfully. Painfully. But the good kind of pain. The kind you cherish, because how many books can wring your heart like that?

“Is it more delicious because it’s stolen?”

Teveri chewed in contemplation. “My tongue only tastes olive. But there is a more spiritual flavor to it.”

Running Close to the Wind is fundamentally fun. It is a fucking delight. It is shameless and delicious and revels in its flamboyant disregard for Serious FantasyTM. It is extravagantly and ostentatiously hilarious, but do not be fooled into thinking that means it is shallow; it has as many layers as all the cakes of its incredible, and incredibly plot-relevant, cake competition put together. It is a showstopper, and a show-starter, and a whole entire Broadway-headlining show that will have you leaping from your seat to give a standing ovation, applauding till your hands burn.

You’ll love it. How could you not?

There’s still time to preorder you copy before Running Close to the Wind sails onto shelves this Tuesday. So go! Go now!! Hurry!!! Missing out would be treason worse than Avra could ever manage!

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