Title: When the Sea is Rising Red
Author: Cat Hellisen
Length: 296 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
15 14 novels in November]
Highborn sixteen-year-old Felicita begins questioning everything about her life after her dearest friend, Ilven, jumps off a cliff to escape from an arranged marriage. When her cruel, dictatorial brother arranges a match for her as well, she stages her own suicide and escapes into the city, though doing so means giving up not only the comforts of her privileged life but also her ability to perform magic. She takes the name of her servant girl, Firell, and soon gets caught up in the noisy and sometimes nasty world of Pelimburg. As she tries to find her place there, tragedy strikes the city, and she soon realizes that she may be in over her head.
I am, frankly, shocked that this book has only a 3.44 average on Goodreads. It isn’t a flawless novel, but it is a beautifully written and realized piece of high fantasy.
The exposition is somewhat mundane and predictable—poor little rich girl runs away from home to escape an arranged marriage—but that really belies the originality and uniqueness of the rest.
Most of the characters were interesting and well-rounded. Felicita is a dissatisfied, spoiled, and rather prejudiced high-Lammer girl, the only daughter of one of the three high Houses that founded the city of Pelimburg. Despite her naivete, she is determined to change her life and be free, but to do so, she has to open her mind and learn to work hard. She falls in with the residents of Whelk Street, including Nala, an eccentric young woman who walks dogs all day; Esta, an orphan girl whose mother was a selkie; and Dash, the charismatic, mischievous Hob boy in charge of Whelk Street.
All Felicita’s relationships are fairly well-developed if not all that complex, and while there is something of a love triangle, it is the cause of zero drama or angst. (Hooray!) You won’t find any instalove here, either. We are never introduced Ilven, but Felicita hints at feelings for her lost friend that transcend mere friendship. It put me in mind of my favorite twist from the Gemma Doyle trilogy. It is never explored in-depth, of course, but it struck me as one of the most compelling, tragic relationships in the novel:
Ilven. A name hooked on kisses and secrets. The pin flashes, and I remember running my fingers through her hair and using this pin to hold the twist of her loose bun in place. The smell of her neck, like sea salt and citrus. (260)
While the fantasy was a little all-over-the-place, I thought Ms. Hellisen handled it well. I loved the Pandora’s Box-style origin story behind Pelimburg’s magic, which was regarded rather like an environmental disaster (think an oil spill). Supposedly, only members of the Houses still possess magic, which manifests in three varieties: War-Singers like Felicita and her family can manipulate air, Saints like Felicita’s best friend Ilven can foretell the future, and Readers can influence thoughts and emotions. To access their magic, however, high-Lammers rely on an expensive and addictive mineral substance called scriven. Without it, they are powerless. The high-Lammers carried out a genocide against all the low-Lammers and Hobs who possessed “wild” magic many years earlier in order to maintain power.
There are also mortal vampires in this world (because why not?), derogatorily called “bats” by the human population and considered second-class citizens. Unlike Felicita’s strict patriarchal society, these vampires are matriarchal. They possess inherent, biological magic that can be accessed only by females.
Did I mention there are selkies, too? Any book can be improved by adding selkies!
“Selkies,” I whisper. They tend to keep to the deeper waters or to only come ashore as seals. It’s too risky for them to show their true selves. The selkies come up out of the waves, slender and dark and beautiful. … [T]he legends are true. A man could lose his heart and head over them. (213)
I thought the world-building was done quite well—and without info-dumping, thank God—and that everything was surprisingly coherent. For me, it all worked. It was, well…magical.
And when Felicita becomes “Firell” and lives on Whelk Street, Hellisen does not romanticize her sudden poverty (and by “romanticize,” I mean like Titanic: poor people always have more fun…
and die first!). She still dreams of her soft gowns and warm bed and admits she would give freedom up to have that kind of security and luxury again. She likes her new companions, too—and even falls hard for one of them—but her work is dull and the hours are long and the pay is bad. So, like many people living in poverty, she and the Whelk Streeters turn to drugs such as poisonink and a potent, illegal drink called vai to interrupt the tedium and unpleasantness of their lives. Felicita slowly begins to understand that low wages and harsh conditions are brewing resentment, anger, and even rebellion among the low-Lammer and Hob population of Pelimburg.
But I wouldn’t quite call When the Sea is Rising Red a dystopian novel. True, Pelimburg is an authoritarian—even totalitarian—state; members of high Houses live in splendor; the rest, in squalor. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to lump this world in with the likes of The Hunger Games. It was dark in places, true, but there were moments of genuine humor, hope, and lightness as well.
Thar brings me to the strongest part of the book: the setting. “Pelimburg,” Felicita says, “is a city of rain and mist and spray.” It revolves around the sea and is governed by the tides.
Hellisen does a magnificent job of setting the scene. Mist curls around every page. I could practically hear the waves crashing against the craggy shore spitting sea-spray against my cheeks and taste the salt in the air. She gets the aesthetic just right.
The place just comes alive. I absolutely bought Pelimburg as a worn-down, waterlogged coastal town whose best days were behind it. This novel, despite being set in a fictional world, does a perfect job of capturing the “New England coast” feeling—chilly, haunting, and melancholy—that so many YA books actually set on the New England coast fail to. This is due in large part to Hellisen’s exquisite descriptions of the sea.
Here are some of them:
Hazy figures run along the promenade, through the veil of sea-rain, their hands over their heads or their whalebone-ribbed umbrellas snapped open against the deluge.
Beyond them the sea roars, gray and green. The white cliffs are invisible, shrouded by the rain and the raging ocean. My family house hides in the mist. (8)
The rain is coming in hard from the ocean now, and I can just make out the dark sails of the returning fishing fleets as they scud across the frothing gray harbor towards the shelter of the docks. Usually the ships go out at night, but the look-fars’ storm horn has been blaring all morning, its mournful wail a counterpart to the wind and gulls. (14)
I wait a few heartbeats, letting the silence of the night drift around me in a thick mist before I set off again. This time I keep to the long shadows where the darkness gathers thickest, picking my way across the silvery damp grass until I reach the edge of the world. Below, rocks and waves are grinding against each other, and the wind sucks at me, begging me to take one more step, to throw myself down. Sacrifice, the water says in its sea-witch voice, full of whispers and promises. Sometimes I have to wonder if the Hob belief that the sea is animate, alive and full of magic, is more than just primitive nonsense. (42-3)
The mist roils up, thick and white, spreading through the streets like a low, clinging ocean of ghosts. It swirls around our legs, making us a little skerry in the street.
“Look,” I say as I pull away. The air is cold and smells of salt and fish, but it’s a clean smell.
Dash looks down. “There’s a tale,” he says, “that the whalers tell, about how sea-mist that comes in this far is all the spirits of the dead, looking for the ones they left behind.”
I shiver. “Old sea stories.” (152)
The ending felt rather rushed and clipped, which was a shame, because Hellisen did a great job of building the plot and characters’ relationships up quite gradually.
I give When the Sea is Rising Red four stars and a hearty recommendation just the same.