Book Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

11388429When the Sea is Rising Red
by Cat Hellisen
Farrar, Straus Giroux
February 28, 2012
296 pages
Source: ARC courtesy of DAC ARC Tours

     After seventeen-year-old Felicita’s dearest friend, Ilven, kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own death and leaves her sheltered life as one of Pelimburg’s magical elite behind. Living in the slums, scrubbing dishes for a living, she falls for charismatic Dash while also becoming fascinated with vampire Jannik. Then something shocking washes up on the beach: Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic. Felicita must decide whether her loyalties lie with the family she abandoned . . . or with those who would twist this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it. (Taken from Goodreads.)

Opening Line
“She’s not here.”

My Take On It 

        I have to say that I have  been really lucky in the fantasy reads department lately. In the last few weeks I have read and reviewed Froi of the Exiles and Blood Song, both excellent examples of YA fantasy. And When the Sea is Rising Red is no exception. This book, and it’s premise, caught my eye late last year, I was eagerly anticipating reading it and very excited to receive a copy for review from those awesome gals at the DAC ARC Tour group. Happily, Hellisen’s debut novel did not disappoint. She has woven together a tale that is an intriguing blend of some of the most well known, and lesser known, mythical creatures featured heavily in YA paranormal reads today, but has placed them in a world that  both echoes our own, yet stands out as wholly unique and original.

As I was reading the book I realized there is so much to this world Hellisen has created that it might be a good idea to take a few notes along the way. My notes kind of ended up looking like an index of sorts. But it helped me keep track of all these fantastical elements that Hellisen was introducing, and I didn’t want to forget any of it as I wrote this review. I have read some reviews that complain about the way the reader is thrown into this world, and it’s true that Hellisen doesn’t exactly ease you in. I have a basic background knowledge of some of the mythical creatures she features (selkies, sea witches, and boggarts) and of course I feel pretty well versed in vampire lore, but the way the patriarchal society of the High and Low Lammers and the Hobs is run, as well as the opposing matriarchal society of the bats (Vampires) society, was new to me.  There are stories,  in fact a whole mythological belief system, created by Hellisen  that is unlike any other I have read. And in the end I didn’t mind jumping in and figuring things out for myself. I didn’t feel it was necessary that she give lengthy explanations or worse, info dump, on the reader to move the story along. I surmised well enough all on my own.

Normally I touch on characters, but I think I’d like to write about the setting first. Pelimburg, where our story takes place, is  a sea faring city, and is rich in it’s descriptions of a life centered around the sea. It reminded me of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, like The Little Mermaid (but not the Disney version.) Pelimburg, or the past of it known as Old Town, where most of the story takes place, is a dark, gritty, moldering town. This isn’t a beachy setting. It’s dirty, and smelly, and the overall feel is damp, dark and depressing. When high born Felicita runs away, the world she ends up in couldn’t be more different from her own. Hellisen does a fantastic job of throwing the reader into this uncomfortable world as well.

The society in which Felicita lives is an interesting one.  I see similarities to the Victorian Era in both social strata and the customs depicted in the fictional city of Pelimburg. But there is also a strong revolutionary theme running through the book, as there are basically two diametrically opposed levels of society in Pelimburg: the High Lammers (the patriarchal ruling houses of which our protagonist Felicita belongs) being on one end and Low Lammers (the working class)  and the Hobs, the original inhabitants of the country,  on the other. The Hobs are now looked down upon and are, in the eyes of the High Lammers, only fit to work as servants to the upper class. Thrown into this are the bats (or vampires) which have a social structure all their own, but more on them in a bit. The High Lammers essentially are the privileged and the Low Lammers and the Hobs are working class poor, under the thumb of the aristocracy. The entire city is rife with tension, and it reminded me of 19th century revolutionary France.

With that setting and society in mind let’s turn to the characters. I liked the protagonist Felicita. I found the stifling society in which she lived to be horrible. Her situation is bleak, and I understand her desire to run away rather than be married off to the simpering son of a neighboring House. I admire her willingness to risk it all in order to avoid that life, and I admire her devotion to her fallen friend Ilven, for whom she harbors a deep guilt at being unable to prevent her suicide. I like how Felicita decided to run away and chart her own course in honor of Ilven. And I like her defiance. Felicita is not one to take anything lying down. She makes some questionable decisions, but I have to give her props for being fearless and not giving in when the going got tough.

Then I think of Ilven’s pale face, her hands as she played with with that thin engagement ring. In a way, I’ve done this for her. I f I go back now with my tail tucked like a beaten dog, and take whatever punishment they give me, whatever husband will have me with my honor in shreds, then Ilven’s  perfect leap means nothing.

I love the flawed character of Dash. It seems to take FOREVER to actually make his acquaintance in the book, but when we do, he is rather unforgettable. Charismatic, complex, roguish and somewhat feared, Dash is an unconventional love interest and hero. But love him I did. He’s an addict, one of many in this story, and he’s got a hidden agenda, but on the same note he does things for the people he loves and cares for that are beyond touching. He’s such a complicated, enigmatic character. I think I could have read a series of books on his life and exploits alone. I found the romance between he and Felicita to be very engaging. It’s not a healthy relationship by any means, but I was drawn in none the less.

     Dash stops, and I jerk to a halt. At first I can’t quite figure out why I’ve also stopped moving until I notice my hand is in his and put two and two together. Happy with my sudden flash of genius, I smile up at him. 
    “I am very drunk,” I inform him, just in case he hasn’t noticed. “Therefore you must not take advantage of me because that would be awfully ungentlemanly…and…and…stuff.” I wave one hand to indicate the importance of said stuff.
   “Hmm,” he says, then leans forward and kisses me.
    I have never been kissed like this by a boy before. It’s different and strange and rather enjoyable. Of course, my only comparison is Ilven and that was tentative and wet. I pull away. The memory of Ilven is salt against my raw skin, and I blink furiously, pushing the image of her white face and soft brush of her mouth away. There is only Dash. 
    “You’re not a gentleman,” I tell him as solemnly as I can. This is very serious. 
    “I never said I was, darling.”
    Oh, right. He’s telling the truth. I decide that he can’t be all that dreadful if he’s honest, and I kiss him back.

And then there is Jannik, the bat. Jannik is somewhat of a mystery, as is the whole vampire society. We are briefly introduced to his mother and sister, and there is a rather unforgettable scene with his brother though we don’t actually “meet” him, but as  Felicita’s  knowledge of vampires is limited, much of his story is left in the shadows. He’s a very emotional character, and I liked the connection between he and Felicita, which was quite different than her relationship with Dash. Jannik seems more of a friend to Felicita, a friendship with some attraction involved and the possibility of more, and he becomes someone she can turn to and count on when she needs him. I enjoyed the character of Jannik, and think his presence in the book, and the vampire presence in general,  is awesome. But as far as romance goes, I was more invested in Dash.

In addition to the three main characters, Hellisen crafts an unforgettable line up of secondary stars. Dash’s gang, which becomes Felicita’s surrogate family, is  rag tag mix of people each written in a totally unique way. I loved Lils and Nala (and three cheers for their relationship, which was written beautifully), the emotionally closed-off, half-selkie pyromaniac Esta, and Verrel the street performer who looks after her. All added such a richness to this story, I think without them this story would have a huge gaping hole  and the reader wouldn’t gain as much insight into the characters of Felicita and Dash. This band of street urchins reminds me a little of Kiki Hamilton’s The Faerie Ring, but I think Hellisen did a much more thorough job of portraying them. I felt connected to each in their own way.

Finally I have to talk about the connecting force that ties together all the components of this tale: the supernatural element.  In this world, the use of magic is very real.  A brief recounting of the how the magic came to be in this world is relayed early on in the book, but Hellisen doesn’t go into great detail. Alongside a host of magical creatures, only the High Lammers are allowed to  harness magic through the use of scriven, or scriv. Essentially a highly additive drug, scriv is a mineral sold only to the upper classes, and controlled solely by the male heads of households. Small rations are given out to the female High Lammers, but it is apparent early on in the story that it’s doled out only very sparingly and Felicita is quite addicted. In fact if anything were to hold her back from running away, it would be the fact that she would be unable to obtain scriv while on the run.

Hellisen creates three types of magical abilities, which are genetically passed on. The Readers, who possess the ability to read emotions (similar to Jasper in Twilight), the Saints, who are able to see the future (similar to Alice in Twilight) and Felicita’s magic, The War-Singers, who have the ability to manipulate air molecules (similar to The Last Airbender Series.) It’s kind of an unusual trio of powers, but I liked it well enough. We also learn through the course of the book that the Hob’s once had natural magic as well, but that the High Lammer’s  exterminated those born with this over the course of time (another fact that sparks anger among these original inhabitants.)  The vampires also seem to sport some strong magic, though again, it’s somewhat unclear what it is exactly. Interestingly enough, where as scriv and the High Lammer magic is controlled by males, the females control the vampire magic, and this is just one of the commonalities shared between Jannik and Felicita. I loved this magical world that Hellisen has written, I found it to be so fascinating. And though I see some similarities (as I pointed out above),  I think the story Hellisen presents us with is so fresh and innovative that it stands in a class all it’s own.

There are so many other little details written into When The Sea is Rising Red, and often I find it’s these small inclusions that push a story from being just so-so to one that is something very special. Like the inclusion of the Crakes, poets and scholars of sorts, who frequent tea houses, writing and orating. I loved how they were utilized in Dash’s revolutionary plans. I loved how Hellisen included fictitious books, legends, and tales in the story. My favorite being the story about “a necklace made of spiders who grew fat on the deaths of the High Lady’s lovers.”  What!?   I want to read that! That’s Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone creative territory there!

And I LOVED  how something as simple as poetry or music can be used  to effectively “stir the pot” and cause the inflamed emotions of the people of Old Town to ignite.  One of my favorite scenes is a concert at The Crake, the tea house/dive bar that Felicita works at:

The girl on the stage  is still gently rattling her tambourine and it fills the suddenly silent tea room with an expectant hiss. The fiddler raises his fiddle and drawn bow across the strings. The music is slow, sad.
    The drums come in and the tempo picks up and the melody becomes a rousing, stomping whirl. 
    It slows again, softens and the girl begins to sing. Her voice is half drowned and the tearoom is quiet quiet quiet. Her voice wavers, then strengthens. 
    She’s singing a song about goodbyes and sunlight. The drummer joins his voice to hers, and they sing the chorus louder, the words strong and no longer sad. 
   Faster and faster the song goes, and I realize it’s about more than what it first appeared. It’s about wealth and poverty and injustice and the tearoom crowd knows the chorus and with each verse more and more of the crowd begins to sing, until everyone is hollering around me and thundering their boots against the wooden floors, making the tables shiver, the tea bowl’s dance.

It was me who was shivering when I read that scene, because it was like a portent of the inevitable clash to come. It reminded me of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables.

There is so much story to this book, and while I think it’s very refreshing that it is a standalone novel, I can’t help but wish there would be more written about these people and this odd, yet enchanting world Hellisen has imagined. I think Hellisen is definitely an author of note and someone to watch in the future. I know that I will.

So if you are a fan of fantasy, and like your fantasy, or fiction, to be fresh and new, and somewhat “out of the box” in terms of originality, you need to check out When the Sea is Rising Red. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

4.5/5 Stars

Cover Story
   It’s creepy, and murky and relevant to the story so it’s a win in my opinion:)