Summary: (Taken 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.
Thoughts: After having read Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs and Blue Magic and being thoroughly impressed by them, there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to read her latest novel, an original fantasy set in a world of islands that’s strongly hinted to be something of a branch-off reality from our own world, formed after a Great Flood event akin to the Noah’s Ark story. Sophie has lived all her life in this world, until a freak event caused her to be taken to this alternate world, Stormwrack, where gets entangled in a murder mystery that steadily grows larger and more complex the more is uncovered.
To say that Child of a Hidden Sea is indulgent fantasy is doing it a disservice, and yet I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It takes so many tropes that herald a bad story, and turns them into something that’s golden and great and nothing but pure enjoyment to read. An alternate world, a modern-day person being teleported to one, finding out she’s of that world all along (and with political clout, no less), these are all things that tend to have a person’s eyes rolling, and yet Dellamonica pulls them all off and makes a great story from them, set in an interesting fantasy world. Combine that with intelligent and diverse characters both on terms of ethnicity and sexuality, and you pretty much trip all my instinctive happy triggers for my reading.
Dellamonica has a knack for writing characters I want to read about. Sophie is beautifully real, flawed and fascinating, and seeing her trying to balance the events of the plot with her personal desire to indulge her own interests and document more of the world of Stormwrack was great. Ditto for her brother, Bram. Both of them are intelligent and curious people, thrown for various reasons into another world, and who with an inquisitive mind wouldn’t want to learn all they could during the brief time they were there. The plot didn’t override the characters, nor did the characters derail the plot. It was an impressive balance to strike, and it’s one of the reasons why I will always feel a pull to this author’s writing. She’s done it in everything of hers that I’ve read, and I can’t see that stopping any time soon.
There is some convenient magic at work in the writing, though, by which I mostly mean the way that Sophie learned Fleetspeak in the first place. Instead of taking he inconvenient and frustrating-for-all road of Sophie having no real language abilities in the world, or having her interactions limited to those who speak English, she’s magicked into understanding the trade language of the world, making communication effortless and taking away a potential source of conflict. Bram at least tries to learn it the old-fashioned way, but his genius-level intellect makes that fairly easy for him. And when he does use Fleetspeak as he’s learning it, he somehow manages to do it without grammatical mistakes, or at least the text certainly makes it come across that way. No words out of order, no verb tense errors, no incorrect use of “spaghetti” when he meant “raincloud.” It was a bit too convenient, was too much like hand-waving away a potential problem because it would have been too irritating to deal with it.
Still, the little bits of actual Fleetspeak that were shown in the text were interesting to me as a language nerd. Clearly sourced from Romance languages (and this comparison is made by some of the characters, too, so it’s not just me being speculative when I say that), it was fun to try to piece together the meaning and the grammatical structure of the language as a few words and phrases were thrown about. Another happy trigger-trip for me; when books do their fantasy languages properly, it provides another level of entertainment for me as I read, trying to untangle the language that’s shown to me and picking up things as I go along.
The system of magic is fairly standard, but with a couple of limitations that make it feel quite original. Spells require ingredients, and the magic is limited by what ingredients one has. As such, certain regions or even just certain islands have resources that others don’t, which give them a monopoly on a particular spell (or at least the ability to cast it). This shapes the economy of the world of Stormwrack, which ties together aspects of the world that don’t often have a connection in fantasy novels. Usually, magic is magic and any needed spell ingredients are just available everywhere or conveniently at hand for the characters, and sourcing said ingredients rarely comes into play. Or least, not that’s seen in the novel itself. Things can have spells put upon them to accomplish a purpose or intention. People can only handle so much magic being placed upon them, as it essentially bends as aspect of the person to someone else’s will. Sophie’s learning Fleetspeak came because someone used a spell to make her understand; she had no real choice in the matter once somebody learned her full name and could direct the intention at her. It’s a good limitation, and for all that magic is fairly common in Stormwrack, it wasn’t thrown about willy-nilly and its uses fit well into the story.
I could go on at length about the myriad reasons why I enjoyed Child of a Hidden Sea, or why A M Dellamonica is an author that you should be keeping your eye on, but really, I think it all speaks well for itself. The story is tight, the mystery well-done, the characters realistic and the relationships believable, the dialogue perfect, and the world is so wide and vast that I could probably read a 10-book series set within it and never once get bored. You’ll fall in love with the world and its people when you crack open this book and lose yourself, drowning in the prose, sinking beneath waves of intriguing story.
(Received for review from the publisher.)