The Nature of a Pirate, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 6, 2016

Summary: The third novel in the Stormwrack series, following a young woman’s odyssey into a fantastical age-of-sail world
Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.

When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature—a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell—causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?

The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanner, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again.

Review: I’ve said before that I have yet to read anything by Dellamonica that I dislike. Her latest novel, The Nature of a Pirate, fits firmly into my expectations, and I think is the best of the series so far. It doesn’t quite have the magic that the first book held for me, the wondrous discovery of a new world, but the story really comes to a head, and this was a real page-turner and such an amazing read for me.

Sophie Hansa is firmly set on dragging Stormwrack into the age of curiosity, introducing greater scientific procedures into the world, at least in regard to forensics and crime-solving. She studies samples of animals and plants, trying to figure out this world that is slowly unfolding before her. Culture and politics, however, are still a lost art to her, and she makes plenty of missteps along her journey, but it’s the science of things she’s primarily interested in, the biology and forensics. So when she’s thrown into the middle of a mystery involving ships that bleed, forbidden magical constructs, and the possibility of it all leading to war, she goes to the task like any mildly obsessive and headstrong person would.

And I love reading Sophie for those traits. She’s in that excellent position to allow the reader a bit of ignorance and explanation, because Sophie herself isn’t familiar with Stormwrack in the way that those who have grown up there are. Cultural missteps are bound to happen. Lack of historical or legal context. That sort of thing. Sophie being from this world, called Erstwhile, has a distinctly modern approach to things, and that works well to ground the reader, making it easier to ride on Sophie’s shoulder as she encounters new things and sees them similarly to how we ourselves would, in all their baffling glory. And her penchant for brutal honesty, calling things how she sees them, is great to read.

I have great respect for the level of detail that Dellamonica put into this novel — the whole series, really, but here it just seemed so overwhelming to keep track of, from a writer’s perspective. Writing a secondary world is always a complicated affair when you’re trying to make it stand out from the crowd, and Dellamonica definitely succeeds in that regard. But it’s more than just an Age-of-Sail world. There are multiple nations, all with their cultural idiosyncrasies that are expressed and considered in the text. Not only that, but Sophie’s efforts to bring modern science into Stormwrack when Stormwrack doesn’t have facilities and technology that we consider modern means improvising, researching early breakthroughs in certain fields and recreating old methods and refining them along the way. Some of my favourite parts of the novel involve Sophie and Bram trying to figure Stormwrack out, and devise experiments and modifications to see how things work and what can be done. It’s creative, it’s impressive, and it speaks to a whole load of behind-the-scenes work that all comes together to create a breathtakingly detailed and realistic story.

Every time I write a review for these books, I find the story very difficult to describe. Not because it’s loose and all over the place. The writing’s tight, the direction clear, and it’s a thrill ride to be on with the characters. No, it’s hard to describe because there’s so much of it. Sophie’s project to introduce fingerprint records to Stormwrack. The frights that are destroying ships. Sophie’s ongoing issues with her birth father. The mystery behind a slave she suddenly owns. So many plot threads intertwine and play off each other, some important, some less so, some seeming unimportant until they zoom to the forefront halfway through the novel. Another point in Dellamonica’s favour; for all that the story has a lot of elements to juggle, not once does it get overwhelming of confusing, beyond the confusion you’re supposed to feel because characters themselves haven’t figured out exactly what’s going on either.

Stormwrack is a world I could constantly — if you’ll excuse the pun — dive into and never be bored reading about. I love the characters, from Sophie’s headstrong intelligence to Garland’s reserved politeness to Verena’s desire to prove herself. They’re whole people, able to stand on their own and tell their own stories. I love the cultures built in the flooded world. I love the little linguistic quirks that get thrown in, pieces of a puzzle to solve. Dellamonica is a fantastically skilled writer, at the top of her game, and I can’t imagine her coming down from those heights any time soon. Do yourself a favour and pick up this series soon if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely worth the time you’ll spend reading it.

 

(Received for review from the publisher.)

A Daughter of No Nation, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2015

Summary: As soon as Sophie Hansa returned to our world, she is anxious to once again go back to Stormwrack. Unable to discuss the wondrous sights she has seen, and unable to tell anyone what happened to her in her time away, Sophie is in a holding pattern, focused entirely on her eventual chance to return.

With the sudden arrival of Garland Parrish, Sophie is once again gone. This time, she has been called back to Stormwrack in order to spend time with her father, a Duelist-Adjudicator, who is an unrivaled combatant and fearsome negotiator. But is he driven by his commitment to seeing justice prevail, or is he a sociopath? Soon, she discovers something repellent about him that makes her reject him, and everything he is offering.

Adrift again, she discovers that her time spent with her father is not without advantages, however, for Sophie has discovered there is nothing to stop her from setting up a forensic institute in Stormwrack, investigating cases that have been bogged down in the courts, sometimes for years. Her fresh look into a long-standing case between two of the islands turns up new information that could get her, and her friends, pulled into something bold and daring, which changes the entire way she approaches this strange new world…

Review: I have every reason to have loved Child of a Hidden Sea when I read it in 2014. Circumstances conspired to have me read it at the same time that things were going well in life, and I was at a bit of a happy high. It was, as I called it, “pure indulgent fantasy,” the concept reminiscent of many old daydreams that used to entertain me when I was younger. And it was written by A M Dellamonica, an author I’d previously established was a damn good writer and who had great talent for writing phenomenal characters that I want to spend time with. It was set up for success in my mind.

So unsurprisingly, I was excited to be able to read the sequel, and I had very high hopes for it.

The book starts with Sophie doing her level best to prepare for an eventual return to Stormwrack. She’s taking self-defense lessons, learning what she can about nautical navigation, trying to find a way to make sure she can take full advantage of everything when she returns to that other world. But when she does return, all her preparations seem pointless when she’s expressly forbidden to actively learn anything. No access to books, people aren’t to give her too much information about science or geography or the like, and Sophie’s frustration is pretty understandable when put up against people who want to keep her in the dark about the world she’s determined to be a part of.

On top of that, her biological father wants to reconnect, and Sophie’s not at all averse to this idea, especially when it seems that he’ll actually encourage her in learning about Stormwrack rather than stymie her.

I have to say that A Daughter of No Nation wasn’t quite what I was expecting. While the previous book in the series did heavily feature exploration and discovery, it was better mixed with action and tension than this one. Here, most of the story is just about Sophie learning, getting into arguments with people, and trying to solve a couple of mysteries that present themselves along the way, one of which she latches onto like a dog with a bone despite having little reason to beyond a hunch. Turns out it was a bigger deal than everyone else thought, and it seemed like many of them followed leads just to indulge her, so that subplot felt a bit forced and incidental than necessary. It would pop up from time to time, a small new revelation would occur, then the story would go back to the main focus.

I’m no expert, but I suspect I’d have been more interested in developments had that all been conveyed more actively than passively. Other people did the investigation, out of sight, while Sophie did other things, and so it felt very divorced from, well, just about everything. It had its purpose, but it was nearly all background stuff until it came to a head, so it came across rather like a small series of unimportant things that suddenly became huge, out of nowhere. Despite Sophie wanting it investigated, and despite other characters investigating and updating her. It was easy to ignore because it was sidelined so often, only to rear its head half a dozen chapters later for maybe a few paragraphs.

But enough of that. What about the rest of the book?

If you’re looking for an action-packed tale of adventure on the high seas, you won’t really find too much of it here. Rather, this is more of Sophie discovering who she is and where she fits into a world that she’s only recently discovered but still has many ties to. It’s like a combination coming-of-age story, a political debate, and a crime drama, rolled into one and set in a fantasy world. As such, while it definitely appealed to me (and will thus probably appeal similarly to those who really enjoy some good solid culture-building), it won’t appeal to everybody, and I suspect some readers will be left rather bored at the lack of development in much other than Sophie’s personal life.

But Dellamonica’s presentation of multiple different culture clashes gave me plenty of food for thought. Is it better to allow a lesser evil if it means a greater evil can’t endure, or is it better to hold true to shared ideals and to fight against what you see as immoral rather than embracing it with concessions? How much of your own morals might you sacrifice in the pursuit of something you hold dear? Sophie and Parrish’s love life was a bit of an echo of Fleet politics: in some ways they hold different opinions on certain matters but are still willing to make a go of being a couple. This is generally see as a good and healthy thing, the willingness to make compromises, but this being something of a mirror of how the Fleet views different nations (and Sophie finding some concessions abhorrent), I found it interesting that what we praise as individuals we often frown on when presented politically.

I also love how we get a much deeper understanding of what Stormwrack really is. In my previous review I speculated that it was an alternate world, since there were elements of shared mythology. And this isn’t an issue that Sophie overlooks; through her research she speculates that most likely Stormwrack is the world of the future, or at least A future, which which massive climate changed caused equally massive flooding over the whole planet. Add to that her investigations into evolution, and some of the book starts to look an awful lot like science-fiction, although a kind that isn’t particularly common since it has its strongest roots in fantasy. Sci-fi that looks like fantasy tends to get a lot of criticism unless it’s game-changing for both genres, but really, I rather like it. It’s in the same way that I enjoy the way authors establish firm rules for how their fantasy worlds work, not just in geography and a few different cultures but in how magic happens and affects things and how technology develops and all of little aspects of life that can get taken for granted in a lot of fantasy novels. Approaching fantasy in a scientific manner has always fascinated me, so I loved that I got to see more of how it all works behind the scenes. Sophie’s inquisitive mind and determination to learn more about things works extremely well to convey all this to the reader, and we discover it exactly as she does, lending another connection between reader and protagonist.

So while this book isn’t heavy on action, or real forward motion in terms of a over-arching series plot, it was still a good book that has its appeal to certain audiences, and I still enjoyed reading it. I lover Dellamonica’s writing style, and the way she writes people as wonderful flawed complex creatures will never cease to entertain me. For those who enjoyed the first book in the series, depending on which parts of it you liked best, then I recommend continuing on with A Daughter of No Nation. Others may find its lack of active tension a major drawback, however. But for my part, the world intrigues me, the characters fascinate me, and I’ll be continuing my journey of discovery right alongside Sophie in any future novels Dellamonica writes.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Child of a Hidden Sea, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 24, 2014

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.)

Blue Magic, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 10, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) This powerful sequel to the A.M. Dellamonica’s Sunburst Award–winning contemporary fantasy Indigo Springs starts in the small town in Oregon where Astrid Lethewood discovered an underground river of blue liquid—Vitagua—that is pure magic. Everything it touches is changed. The secret is out—and the world will never be the same. Astrid’s best friend, Sahara, has been corrupted by the blue magic, and now leads a cult that seeks to rule the world. Astrid, on the other hand, tries to heal the world.

Conflicting ambitions, star-crossed lovers, and those who fear and hate magic combine in a terrible conflagration, pitting friend against friend, magic against magic, and the power of nations against a small band of zealots, with the fate of the world at stake.

Blue Magic is a powerful story of private lives changed by earthshaking events that will ensnare readers in its poignant tale of a world touched by magic and plagued by its consequences.

Thoughts: The sequel to A M Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, Blue Magic picks up right where the previous novel left off, with almost no gap in time between one book to the next. Magic is still loose in the world, Sahara is still head of a goddess cult that worships her, Astrid is trying to hold onto reality enough to make things right, and Will has found his world turned upside down by the implications of all that’s happening.

Add to that the fact that people transformed and held within the previously frozen vitagua want to carve their own place in the world, and to get vengeance for past wrongs committed against them, and things get a touch chaotic.

As a counter to Sahara’s cult, Astrid has a group of people flocking to her, all of them bent on changing the world with magic in order to make things better for people. Not just creating little chantments like they did in the beginning, but using the transformative power of magic to reshape things to everyone’s benefit. Or at least as much benefit as possible. The release of vitagua, controlled and otherwise, is reshaping the world anyway, strange life springing up, giving people more animalistic qualities in accordance with their nature.

Interestingly, this also seems to apply with gender dysphoria, giving one character the body of a man. This gives the author a wonderful chance to explore gender politics and give social commentary, which she does very well. Characters of colour, transgendered characters, different expressions of sexuality, this book has a great deal of diversity in its cast, making it stand head and shoulders above the vast majority of urban fantasy.

This book has the world in chaos, with characters spread far and wide but mostly flowing around a small central cast of characters, to keep things as contained as possible. The chaos is definitely felt in the text, with stories flowing around each other, connecting and separating, and at times it can be hard to keep track of what’s happening where and when. Not to the point that the story becomes unintelligible, but it’s something to keep in mind; this isn’t the sort of book you can read with your mind half on something else.

Dellamonica’s writing is engaging and flows well, and her endless fount of creativity may as well be vitagua in itself, transformative and magical. The story is much more linear here than in Indigo Springs, and the plot darker and more serious. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first book, but I can’t deny that it was still an amazing book, and still very enjoyable anyway. This is an amazing urban fantasy that shouldn’t be missed by fans of the genre, or fans of intelligent genre fiction in general.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Indigo Springs, by A M Dellamonica

Indigo Springs, by A M Dellamonica  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – October 27, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Indigo Springs is a sleepy town where things seem pretty normal . . . until Astrid’s father dies and she moves into his house. She discovers that for many years her father had been accessing the magic that flowed, literally, in a blue stream beneath the earth, leaking into his house. When she starts to use the liquid “vitagua” to enchant everyday items, the results seem innocent enough: a “‘chanted” watch becomes a charm that means you’re always in the right place at the right time; a “‘chanted” pendant enables the wearer to convince anyone of anything . . .

But as events in Indigo Springs unfold and the true potential of vitagua is revealed, Astrid and her friends unwittingly embark on a journey fraught with power, change, and a future too devastating to contemplate. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends as Astrid discovers secrets from her shrouded childhood that will lead her to a destiny stranger than she could have imagined…

Thoughts: Indigo Springs takes the concept of magical realism to the next step, not just making the magic realistic in its function but to a degree, actually somewhat scientific, too. Add to that a cast of characters that is wonderfully diverse and surprisingly not heteronormative, and you’ve got the makings of a novel that can take the genre world by storm.

It certainly blew me away!

The story itself is told in two interlinking parts. The first is told from the perspective of Will, assigned by the military to get information out of Astrid Lethewood. The second is told from the perspectiveof Astrid herself, as though she’s revealing the story piece by piece to Will as he asks for detail and explanation. As both parts are told, the reader begins to get a more complete picture of the situation at hand. Astrid was the guardian of magic and the maker of magical objects, though somewhat new and unsure about the whole thing, and through happenstance her two friends become exposed to the liquid magic known as vitagua and its effects on the world. What sounds innocent enough turns dark and menacing quickly as it becomes clear that Astrid’s long-time friend and crush, Sahara, went mad with power over the magic and eventually formed a cult around herself, one which is wreaking havoc across America. Magic’s secrets have been exposed, the country is in chaos over it, and that brings us back around to why Will is questioning Astrid in the first place. It’s a complex story that’s surprisingly hard to sum up in a short description, and I know I’m not doing it justice by trying. It really is best experienced firsthand, so that the reader can pick up on all the little subtleties and nuances and details that unfortunately have to be left out here.

For me, while the book was a thrilling and fascinating read, it was also somewhat of an uncomfortable one. I could see some of myself in Astrid, but more importantly, I could see an old friend of mine in Sahara. From How Astrid felt about Sahara to how Sahara grasped desperately at power — especially power over other people — and wouldn’t let go, it was like a fictional and ramped-up retelling of parts of my life. This certainly made for a relatable read, if an uncomfortable one at times.

Dellamonica’s writing style was a real treat to experience. The pacing was fast and smooth, and you never had a chance to get bored even when there was a lack of action on the pages. especially interesting was seeing Astrid when she was holding too much of the vitagua in her body, and watching her get confused about where on the timeline she was standing. Not sure why that in particular fascinated me, but it did. Dellamonica also has a clear talent for not only writing interesting and diverse people, but also writing them realistically. It’s hard for me to think of another book I’ve read lately where a character’s ethnicity or their sexuality featured but wasn’t a driving force behind the character and their development. Dellamonica wrote these people as people, with their flaws and foibles and concerns, and didn’t try to make them into less or more than they were.

As far as books about magical realism go, this has to rank pretty high on the list, if it’s not holding the top spot entirely. There wasn’t much I could find to dislike about Indigo Springs, and it was one of those books that I fell into and didn’t want it to let me go. From start to finish it was a wonderful book, and my only regret is that I took so long to get around to reading it. I highly recommend taking a chance on Indigo Springs. Even if magical realism isn’t normally your thing, the characters and the situations they find themselves in will captivate you enough to likely change your mind. Definitely worth it!