Summary: Twin sisters Moria and Ashyn were marked at birth to become the Keeper and the Seeker of Edgewood, beginning with their sixteenth birthday. Trained in fighting and in the secret rites of the spirits, they lead an annual trip into the Forest of the Dead. There, the veil between the living world and the beyond is thinnest, and the girls pay respect to the spirits who have passed.
But this year, their trip goes dreadfully wrong.
Review: Kelley Armstrong has made waves with her previous books, both for adult and YA audiences. Sea of Shadows is the beginning of a YA fantasy series that will probably appeal to many, but from where I stand it had a few problems that made it seem (and I feel bad saying this) like an attempt by a writer early in their career, to make something big by combining aspects of popular fields into a not-quite-cohesive whole.
For the most part, the story itself is quite interesting, with a pair of independent female protagonists, Ashyn and Moria, who both complement each other (as twins) and are still able to stand on their own, their personalities distinct. Their combined job is to keep and calm the evil twisted spirits that live in the nearby Forest of the Dead. But naturally, fate throws a wrench into the works and evil escapes, slaughters their village, and the twins set off on their respective journeys to get help and to find the few survivors that escaped the carnage. Along the way they meet new people with their own agendas, creatures of myth and legend, and a more sinister plot than they could have guessed.
The tone was unexpectedly dark, with more blood and death than I normally see in a YA fantasy, which was impressive. The more dialogue-heavy parts are balanced fairly well by the many action scenes. The romantic subplots were fairly predictable: one sister gravitates to a strong and quiet warrior with a shady past, the other gravitates to an outlaw with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Not the most original, but I’ll grant you that at least the characters were developed more than it sounds in the brief description I’m giving. The romance may have been a bit contrived, but it wasn’t central to the plot, and the characters were built beyond the mere concept of “love interest.” My previous experience with Armstrong’s YA offerings hold true here: the characters she writes are flawed and largely realistic, the dialogue is more than decent, and the narrative is smooth with plenty of clear imagery.
My biggest problem with this book is that it tries, and fails, to integrate aspects of Japan into a setting that’s mostly based on traditional European fantasy. Sometimes this works, such as a quick and simple line about Ashyn and Moria’s diet being rice-based and that they eat with chopsticks. That sort of thing gives me little hints about the world and sheds light on the culture without having large infodumps. But some attempts are less effective, such as the attempt to blend European and Japanese names to the point where we get Tyrus Tatsu and Gavril Kitsune. Clan names serving as surnames, mostly, which is another glimpse into wider worldbuilding, except that it there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the smooshing of two different and distinct language types like this. Even a simple one-liner like, “Clan names are based on an ancient language that is no longer spoken but that we still retain some knowledge of.” That wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than what’s actually there, which leaves many of the names feeling mismatched and out of place.
Then there are the Katakana mountains, which is the most baffling random use of Japanese in this book. I’m torn between two thoughts on this one: either the author found a random Japanese word she thought people would recognize and named a fictional mountain range after it just because, or else the mountain range coincidentally resembles a set of written characters used to express foreign words. Things like this were what made it feel like any little dribbles of Japanese language or culture that were added to the story were there largely to capitalize on the still-ongoing Japanese craze in North America, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of anime and manga. It detracted much more than it added.
Still, the book wasn’t bad, and the story that Armstrong is setting up definitely has merit. There’s a deeper plot at work than what was initially presented, and my attention was caught enough to want to see it through to the end, in spite of the problems I have with the book. It’s my hope that Armstrong will eventually reveal a reason for her bizarre use of Japanese, if indeed there is a legitimate reason for it; if not, I admit that it makes it hard for me to take the book seriously or give much credit to the author’s ability to blend multiple elements into a smooth story. But the smooth narrative style alone could have me coming back for future installments, so despite reservations, I’m probably still willing to give the sequel a try.
(Received for review from the publisher.)