The Last True Poets of the Sea sets high drama in an idyllic seaside town. Julia Drake’s send-up to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is romantic, hilarious, and full of heart.

Book Cover: The Last True Poets of the Sea

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The Larkin family isn’t just lucky-they persevere. At least that’s what Violet and her younger brother, Sam, were always told. When the Lyric sank off the coast of Maine, their great-great-great-grandmother didn’t drown like the rest of the passengers. No, Fidelia swam to shore, fell in love, and founded Lyric, Maine, the town Violet and Sam returned to every summer.

But wrecks seem to run in the family: Tall, funny, musical Violet can’t stop partying with the wrong people. And, one beautiful summer day, brilliant, sensitive Sam attempts to take his own life.

Shipped back to Lyric while Sam is in treatment, Violet is haunted by her family’s missing piece-the lost shipwreck she and Sam dreamed of discovering when they were children. Desperate to make amends, Violet embarks on a wildly ambitious mission: locate the Lyric, lain hidden in a watery grave for over a century.

She finds a fellow wreck hunter in Liv Stone, an amateur local historian whose sparkling intelligence and guarded gray eyes make Violet ache in an exhilarating new way. Whether or not they find the Lyric, the journey Violet takes-and the bridges she builds along the way-may be the start of something like survival.

Epic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, The Last True Poets of the Sea is an astonishing debut about the strength it takes to swim up from a wreck.

The Last True Poets of the Sea
Julia Drake

I couldn’t blame him and I couldn’t blame the shipwreck gene either. This looming disaster was all mine.”

Violet Larkin is adrift. “Family stuff,” she says, and that barely scratches the surface. Her already dysfunctional family was thrown into a tailspin when her brother attempted suicide. Violet’s parents decide that her failing coping strategies (booze and boys) must end, so she’s shipped off to the seaside town of Lyric, Maine to dry out for the summer while her brother is in treatment. Full of remorse and self-loathing, Violet commits to her exile, drawing in on herself like the turtles she looks after volunteering at the tiny town’s aquarium. But the town has other ideas. Lyric holds deep history for the Larkin family, and her ancestral shipwreck is calling. Also calling? A tattooed boy with godlike eyebrows… and his love, the sharp, black-clad Liv. Violet knows she should steer away, but doesn’t want to anymore, even as she heads for her biggest wreck yet.

A magical (lowercase m) contemporary

When I picked up The Last True Poets of the Sea based on the cover alone, I assumed it was fantasy–low fantasy, at least. It’s not, of course, this is textbook contemporary, but I wasn’t disappointed. This book is one of my favorite kinds of YA: contemporary that feels like fantasy.

It feels epic. It feels mysterious and magical. It’s all about character growth through adventure, with high stakes and a captivating setting. It’s everything that YA fantasy is great at–just in a contemporary story.

Book cover: Don't Date Rosa Santos

I loved the humor and the tremendous heart. I loved the flawed, messy characters who know they need to grow. And most of all, I loved the journey of healing that was difficult, painful, but always worth it.

It’s amusing to put The Last True Poets of the Sea side-by-side with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos, another 2019 YA contemporary debut. They are quite different stories with very, very different protagonists, but there’s interesting symmetry to the premise: teenage girl meets a tattooed boy working for the summer in an idyllic seaside town. She likes him but knows she shouldn’t pursue it, especially considering her family’s tendency towards disasters at sea. Rosa Santos takes that premise in one direction (sweet and light tone, Cuban-American infused magical realism, romantic comedy with a heartrending twist) and Poets in another (sweeping, epic mood, mystery, tragic drama with spikes of humor), but both end up in the same place: family. Understanding your family, being close to them–it’s difficult and complicated, and sometimes not possible, but if there’s love, it’s worth the struggle.

The romance was a little bit of a let-down.

Drake may have bit off more than she could chew within a single book. Weaving in a romance in addition to all those other elements would be challenging enough, but here, we have two separate (though interconnected) romantic plotlines. Both relationships seemed underdeveloped to me, but if the book had spent more time on the romances, it would be monstrously long.

I don’t think the book needed the romantic aspect of Violet’s relationship with Orion. The book could have been streamlined by keeping it to a complex friendship, and I don’t think the story would have suffered.

As far as I can tell, the biggest reason to build in romantic tension between Orion and Violet is to preserve the love triangle. By the end of the first quarter of the book, the plot contrivance pulled from the beginning of Twelfth Night has been established: Violet (Viola) acts as a go-between to help Orion (Orsino) woo Olivia (Olivia), but all the while, Violet/Viola is developing feelings for Orion/Orsino, who still wants Olivia, who now wants Violet/Viola instead.

As a Twelfth Night retelling, The Last True Poets of the Sea leaves something to be desired.

While The Last True Poets of the Sea is only loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it actually hits most of the major story beats of the main plot. The love triangle I mentioned before is just the same and the heroine’s brother (Sam/Sebastian) shows up right on cue, all in a seaside setting full of shipwreck mythology.

But to me, the plot details are not the most important part of a retelling. The love triangle isn’t what makes me recognize a story as Twelfth Night, it’s the gender dynamics.

While female characters disguise themselves as men in several of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is the play most known for inviting ambiguity in sexuality and gender into the situation.

For me (and many modern readers), that element is essential to a modern reading of Twelfth NightIts absence from The Last True Poets of the Sea is conspicuous. The book certainly has enough to be getting on with–it’s exploring mental health, sexual orientation, and family identity with great nuance. I normally wouldn’t look at a book like this and think, “yeah, but when are you going to directly address questions about the fluidity of gender?” It’s only because the author specifically invoked Twelfth Night, a play arguably about the insufficiency of a heteronormative gender binary, that the complete lack of discussion seems strange. The story begins with Violet shaving her head and dressing in her dad’s jeans, so I felt ready for some form of the traditional cross-dressing narrative, but it never materialized.

An f/f reboot

Instead of translating that element of the play into the modern day (where it would probably be right at home with the expanded vocabulary we now have to discuss gender), Drake swaps out Violet/Viola’s primary love interest from Orion/Orsino to Olivia.

While the book ignores discussions of gender, it does hint at some interesting exploration of sexuality. Violet and Liv both express discomfort with labels like lesbian and bisexual to describe themselves, but aren’t sure how they do identify. The brief discussions felt wonderfully true-to-life.

…but, like, maybe I’ll date a guy next, who cares, but, like, right now I just like Violet but I’m still an absolute morass!”
“Is that like a moron-ass hybrid?” I asked.
“No, it’s a mess. A bog. A wetland.”
“My mistake. If you’re a bog, then be a bog. ‘Are you gay?’ ‘Nah, I’m more like a bog.’”
Liv considered this. “I’d rather be a fen,” she said finally. “They’re less acidic.” “

While the gender-swapped f/f romance didn’t scratch the Twelfth Night itch for me, it was still a wonderful story in its own right. Violet and Liv’s flirtation is sweet, human, and unexpectedly steamy. Readers in search of more f/f reads that aren’t stories of queer suffering will be happy to find this one

But yes, I loved it

All my reservations aside, this is still a four-star read for me. The writing was spectacular–creative, captivating, and sometimes unconventional. The story never dragged because Drake was always pulling out new ways of drawing me into Violet’s brain.

It was so satisfying to watch Drake pull all the elements together. The little details of Violet’s past and her life in Lyric (her love of musical theatre, her uncle’s puzzles, her musings on constellations) are all tapped for thematic resonance, but it never feels cheap–it feels like a natural search for meaning by a girl who needs an anchor.

Content warnings for The Last True Poets of the Sea include teen drinking and drug use (on-page), off-page past suicide attempt (and discussion of suicidal ideation), some moderate language. There is some off-page consensual sex between teens as well as some on- and off-page sexual activity of dubious consensuality involving teens.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion for providing me with an advance review copy of this title at no charge in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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