Book Review: Child of a Hidden Sea

bookreview by pedrojperez

Book Description from Goodreads: One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.

The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.

Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered… her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.

But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world . . . or is doomed to exile.

 

I apparently picked this book up at the perfect time: with its sequel due out next month, I have just enough time to process my thoughts before I embark on the second “journey.”

Overall, I was delightfully pleased. It isn’t Young Adult fiction–the protagonist is twenty-four, struggling with defending her master’s thesis and finding direction and purpose in life, rather than the usual “high-school-and-growing-up” kinds of problems we find in YA–and it might not appeal to those who prefer YA fantasy.

While Sophie might be immature at times, she’s definitely an adult. Her views on sexuality, on the complexity of international politics, geography, family relations, and other people is far too circumspect for a young adult. She thinks too much for this to feel like YA fiction, but it is an excellent Young Adult novel, with the fresh, eager look at life that belongs to twenty-somethings who are looking for their place in the world.

So here’s a look at the book, examining its Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World Building, and my Overall Response.

Narration: 4 out of 5. One of the things I liked best about this book was it was really well written. The prose isn’t flowery or poetic, but descriptively believable. Sophie is interested in science, in marine biology in particular, and in the culture and ecosystem in general. She constantly makes comparisons between Earth and Stormwrack, which are very useful as exposition, but it never feels contrived.

If anything, it feels like it took too long to get to the exposition. When Sophie first journeys to Stormwrack, she has no clue what is going on, and we’re dropped into the action, with even less idea of what’s going on. We don’t know who she is, what’s she’s after, who the woman is who’s with her…it felt like there was just too much left unanswered, initially. It wasn’t until her second visit to Stormwrack that we get some characters who are willing to open up and explain a few things. I almost put the book down between the first and second visits (though I’m very glad I didn’t).

Content: 4 out of 5. The book felt a little slow, but that may be because it took so long to get the narration well underway. About seventy pages in, we started finally getting hard facts, but this novel never gains the speed or action of a Young Adult novel. It’s thoughtful rather than adventurous, but its a fun journey nonetheless.

I did feel like the sexuality (gay and straight) was unnecessary to the plot. Sophie has an affair with one of the characters while on her first visit (and voyage) in Stormwrack, and two of the characters are gay, but it felt so casual as to not add anything to the plot. (In the case of those who were gay, it seemed added solely so the “bad guys” could be shown as prejudiced against them…which I feel sets up the fallacy that anyone who’s not comfortable or overtly supportive of gays must be evil or, at very least, be condescending and self-aggrandizing. Once in a while, fiction could and should show regular people with different beliefs who aren’t hardened, prejudiced prigs, I think.)

In Sophie’s case, a good flirtation would’ve been more interesting, I thought, but it did serve to show some growth in how she views sex by the end. She no longer seems to desire it, just for fun, but she wants it with a particular person…or not at all. And I was glad that the book never went into details, even when the characters were sleeping together. There was a little bit of language, but it was short-lived and sporadic.

Characters: 5 out of 5. This was the best part of the book, I thought. Sophie was interesting: struggling with her identity, with understanding the world she was in, but yet human. Empathetic. Relatable and funny, even, at times. She and her brother were definitely modern “fishes out of water;” she frequently texts him, just out of habit, even though there is no service in Stormwrack, but they adapt to the world as best they can.

The other characters are just as good (though I haven’t figured out why her birth mom is such a drama queen, but it may be a cultural thing). Parrish, the captain of her aunt’s ship and Sophie’s primary “love interest,” is enigmatic yet caring. At one point, I wondered if he was working with the “bad guys,” but the plot never pulls any tricks like that. The characters are set up and they grow rather than transform, which is why I’m looking forward to the sequel. There is so much to these characters that I’m looking forward to more.

Artwork: Subjective. The cover was what actually got me interested in this book to begin with. Along with the title, the dark haired woman, sailing while holding onto the rigging, and the darker haired, dark skinned companion at her side with a ferret on his shoulder made me curious. I haven’t run into many sailing fantasies (castle ones are much more common), and this presented the feel of the book without giving anything away.

World Building: 4 out of 5. This is the weakest area in the book, not because the world isn’t complex, but because there seemed to be some holes in the world’s logic. First, there is no map, even though the characters are constantly looking at maps and charts. The author has said she hasn’t done a map because there is too little land to map, and that she lacks the skill, but I think it would be well worth the investment. If there’s enough land for Sophie’s brother to label some of the islands at one point, there should be enough to put in a map of some sort.

The other problem I had with the world was the whole spellscript thing (their magic). It reminded me a bit of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea with the fascination with names, but it takes a person’s entire name to scrip them. Sophie gets scripped with her adopted name, though, not her birth name (if she had one), which seemed rather arbitary. Shouldn’t her name, the name that works with magic, involve who she really is? Or is her adopted name who she really is?

And how do animals, volcanoes, and ships get scripped? Do they also have proper names, or does it just have to be done to their skin/surface? It all seemed a bit hazy, and for something that the plot (and world) hinges on, I wanted more concrete facts.

Overall Response: 17 out of 20, or an average of 4.25. The world of the story was unique, the story was imaginative, and the characters were complex and entertaining. Despite its flaws, I would recommend Child of a Hidden Sea to anyone who enjoys a thoughtful, slower fantasy, where the climax isn’t a big battle but more of an intellectual, relational conflict, and I’m looking forward to reviewing the sequel later this year.

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Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by pedrojperez, Creative Commons

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