by Cat Hellisen
February 28, 2012
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers
Source: bought from indie bookstore
Mature content: non-explicit sexual situations, suicide, drug use
Picking out books can be a little like getting dressed in the morning: I often reach for what's familiar and comfortable. So one of my Reading Resolutions for 2012 is to read books outside of my usual comfort zone.
When the Sea is Rising Red is one of those books. Fantasy definitely isn't my go-to genre. But I'm glad I ventured outside my comfort zone, because this book drew me in and kept me intrigued right until the end.
My summary: When her best friend commits suicide to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita is distraught, but understands her friend's state of mind. As a High Lammer -- a marriageable daughter from one of Pelimburg's High Houses -- Felicita faces the same choice: wed her chosen suitor or leap from the cliffs and let the sea claim her body instead. But Felicita sees a third option: she'll fake her own death and start a new life in the Pelimburg slums. So she leaves behind her privileged life and her scriven, a drug-like dust that helps her practice magic -- a right reserved for the upper classes -- and becomes a scullery maid. As she begins her new life in the city, she meets two men: Dash, a charismatic rabble-rouser, and Jannick, a high-born vampire. But when translucent bodies begin to wash ashore on the beach, the slum residents begin to whisper about dark magic, claiming that Felicita and her wealthy family are cursed and must pay in blood. Felicita will have to decide whom to trust and where her loyalties lie.
My thoughts: When the Sea is Rising Red offers up a rich, imaginative blend of legend, history, and magic. The High Houses of Palimburg are reminiscent of the Houses of Capulet and Montague in Romeo and Juliet, while the scriven-sniffing nobility could be a nod to the aristocratic opium and laudanum addicts of the Victorian age. There's a nice touch of political commentary in the form of the class warfare that simmers between the restive slum dwellers and the cloistered aristocracy. Characters from myth and the supernatural are woven into the mix: selkies, boggarts, sea witches and vampires. Yes, there's also a love triangle, but not the typical one.
While the book's sinister atmosphere and vivid setting are standouts, I felt they overshadowed its heroine at times. Felicita starts out sheltered and naive, trying to break free of the constraints of her gender and class. However, after she makes the choice to take on a new identity, she seems to drift from situation to situation. By the end of the book, she does take control of her destiny, but her choice seems more practical than passionate.
Still, When the Sea is Rising Red is a unique and absorbing read. If you love fantasy, you should definitely add it to your list. If you're a fan of the paranormal and/or historical fiction, I think you'll find much that appeals here. And if you're a diehard contemporary fan? Why not try something completely different!
Try this book if you liked: