“The Light Pirate,” by Lily Brooks-Dalton

The Light Pirate (Grand Central, 2022) debuted less than a year ago as an immediate Good Morning America Book Club Pick. Anyone reading this sophomore novel by acclaimed author Brooks-Dalton will understand why—not only is it artfully written and carefully crafted, it takes what was once dystopian climate fiction and twists it, tornado-like, into a prescient, almost contemporary story that both unsettles and awakens the reader.

Brooks-Dalton sets her apocalyptic novel in Rudder, a small, imaginary town in southeast Florida, based on a real town she considers her home base (her parents moved to Florida when she was twenty-one). The novel’s setting starts on dry land, but soon that land is eaten up by encroaching water from the ocean and rivers, from the sky, and even from the water table below. Dividing her story into four parts—power, water, light, time—she uses these structural elements almost as the four “seasons” of decline and redemption.

In the early part of the book, we hear of political coups and “humanitarian crises,” as the powerful force of destructive Hurricane Wanda bears down on the Lowe family. When it passes, it leaves the newly birthed main protagonist, Wanda, motherless (but not before her mother names her after the storm). I thought I might get numbed to the copious water descriptions throughout, but Brooks-Dalton finds a thousand ways to describe water and storms and swamps in unique and magical ways that can leave the reader enraptured.

Told from multiple points of view, the novel eventually arranges itself into a slower, more satisfying rhythm as characters perish or flee Rudder for higher ground up North. This is where the reader becomes unsettled. We see this happening in everyday world events, the dawning of climate refugees, and it’s worth noting that when she wrote this, Hurricane Ian hadn’t even formed. That devastating hurricane in 2022, for all of us who live in Florida, was a turning point. The beginning of understanding that land is not going to be taken back, it is being taken back. Many in the heavily ravaged areas are opting or being forced to leave (over a million had no flood insurance) rather than rebuild. Those who stayed are being forced to conceptualize a new way to build homes and infrastructure. All eerily mirrored in The Light Pirate.

Wanda along with her adopted caretaker, Phyllis (a hermetic survivalist who stands in for her mother and is the only one prepared to take on this changing world) eventually take over the narration and the novel moves with more introspection and eloquence. Before that, we are privy to the voice of Kirby Lowe, Wanda’s father, a lineman. This is a brilliant occupational choice. Kirby repairs electric wires and poles and puts his trust in the energy that pulses through them. Later, Wanda’s older brother Lucas also becomes a lineman. The author recognizes the lifeblood of our communities—electricity. Power. It’s the wealthier communities who have electricity, or electricity that’s more reliable and accessible. Brooks-Dalton does not cringe from depicting the disparities in climate refugees, imagining that Miami would get more federal funding for relocation than Wanda’s small town of Rudder. And she reminds the reader often that there is a dual history of place, that at one time there was no “country” nor any boundaries.

As the bond between Phyllis and Wanda grows stronger, the bonds between Wanda and the men who choose to leave or are forced to grows weaker. The waters keep rising, the businesses shutter up, and in one of the most disturbing scenes, their ex-postman throws rocks to break the glass windows that once were part of his own post office. How will we react to traumatic loss? Brooks-Dalton asks throughout. This is one way, to redirect our anger in a nonproductive and possibly dangerous way.

Phyllis recognizes this potential danger. As the world disintegrates, so too does human behavior, and she not only schools Wanda in survivalist skills in the woods, but how to survive the ones who choose to stay behind. The bond between this older woman and abandoned young girl is beautiful and strong and highlights the importance of knowledge and preparation and affection. But has Phyllis taught Wanda to be too independent and suspicious of others? When Wanda encounters another survivor, Bird Dog, she must choose between a lifetime of conditioning and her own instincts. She asks herself, “What if survival and risk belong to one another?”

Water ironically saves and the sun kills, to the point where even crying tears comes with a price to pay—potential dehydration and death. The idea of home and civilization is questioned, and rendered artfully in passages such as this one:

The blue house was a relic, as all the houses in Rudder were. Structures that belonged to an old paradigm. A series of rooms built upon a series of ideas, none of which had withstood the test of time: the idea that what was here would always be here; the idea that the limestone beneath their feet would go on holding them forever; the idea that the coast was a faithful, unmoving line in the sand. None of this was true anymore. The thing was, it never had been.

The novel also has moments of happiness—in a birthday party, in forays into “the field” gathering specimens with Phyllis, in a father-daughter experience at the movies. And it also comes with a surprise. While all the imaginative details are based on real storms and basic scientific knowledge (which the author has full command of), Wanda discovers she possesses a magical power. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but once again, Brooks-Dalton instinctively chose the perfect foil to the loss of electric power and civilization as we know it. These two “powers,” scientific and magical, are rendered side by side, and the reader gets to choose which one is the best path forward.

For in the end, that is what this novel is. A luminous map to the not-so-distant future, and The Light Pirate does what it’s meant to do, both warn and educate and provide a glimmer of hope and resilience. As the first year of publication closes, this novel was justifiably awarded runner-up placing in the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which recognizes books that use “the power of literature to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding.”

Lily Brooks-Dalton

After the huge success of her first novel Good Night, Midnight (which became the film The Midnight Sky starring George Clooney), Brooks-Dalton has gifted us with perhaps an even more important glimpse into our future, for those of us who are brave enough to look. The Light Pirate is not only powerful, it’s a necessary contribution. Science can give us facts; authors can give us epiphanies. When it comes to climate change and the way forward, the latter might be more necessary, rewarding, and important to humanity. Brooks-Dalton also reminds us that we might be fighting too hard “to keep a world that was not meant to stay the same.” There can be some peace in that theory, and reading this book is an awakening experience. Highly recommended.

Lily Brooks-Dalton’s most recent novel is The Light Pirate, a #1 Indie Next pick for December 2022, a Good Morning America Book Club selection, one of NPR’s “Books We Love,” and a New York Times Editors’ Pick. She is also the author of Good Morning, Midnight, which has been translated into seventeen languages and was the inspiration for the film adaptation The Midnight Sky, and the memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. A former writer-in-residence at The Kerouac House and The Studios of Key West, she currently lives in Los Angeles.







  1. Although I’m attempting to not listen to or read anything depressing lately, this one sounds good enough to try anyway.

  2. Karen: Thank you so much for your comment and I do hope you get around to reading it! I would not put it in the depressing category, but it does hit home and make you think and there is hope.

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