Monday, February 24, 2014
Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen
Title: When the Sea is Rising Red (Hobverse, #1)
Author: Cat Hellisen
Rating: 4 Stars
When we first meet Felicita in When the Sea is Rising Red, she is a wealthy young girl stifled under the pressures of her caste. Felicita's best friend commits suicide escaping an arranged marriage and Felicita, bound for the same fate, fakes her death and runs to the Hob, filled with lower-caste individuals without magical ability. In Felicita's world, an addictive substance known as scriv is capable of unleashing the powers the Houses possess. Meanwhile, those of the lower caste systems must suffer in poverty or find ways to make money. More often than not, this either means becoming a prostitute or offering to allow a vampire to drink your blood. Bats, as the vampires are mockingly called, are another class entirely, below the Houses but not quite at the level of the Hob folk either. While the Houses are structured in typical fashion - patriarchal societies - the vampires are matriarchal hierarchies for only the females are born with magical power.
When Felicita runs away from home in the beginning of When the Sea is Rising Red, she is desperate. In an attempt to keep herself alive, she finds herself in the midst of flimsy friendships, shocking betrayals, and facing hasty decisions with unexpected consequences. When the Sea is Rising Red brings about both the best and the worst in Felicita, enabling her to understand her moral limits in a manner that is, frankly, disquieting. Felicita is, however, a remarkable protagonist. While her circumstances force her to regard both her societal status and previous lifestyle differently, they also propel her into darker paths. For the majority of her life, Felicita has lived following a code of strict guidelines. Naturally, when given the opportunity to make choices of her own, Felicita makes plenty of mistakes. When the Sea is Rising Red never attempts to gloss over the gravity of the difficult situations Felicita finds herself in, which I appreciate. While this is marketed to teens, I would argue that a handful of scenarios are, certainly, more adult in their nature.
Evidently, though, the strongest area of When the Sea is Rising Red remains its world-building. Hellisen has created a rich, complex world, one in which heavy disquiet runs among all the social classes. Although there this plenty of action towards the end of this novel and the pace moves rapidly, the conflict remains political at heart. Hellisen, though, has mastered the art of showing her universe to her readers in small, seemingly insignificant snippets which contribute to the depth of her world as a whole. Instead of blatantly describing her fictional land in a series of paragraphs, there is a sense that each chapter adds a new layer to the sphere she has created, which I appreciated as both a reader and a lover of words. Even beyond her world, though, the dual nature of her secondary characters keeps the narrative afloat for though their presence may be minimal, it is thought-provoking.
Where this tale tends to falter, for me at any rate, is in the fact that there are multiple story lines. Once in the Hob, Felicita meets Dash, an enigmatic young man whose confidence boasts of taking down the Houses and their ridiculous caste system. Into this mix is thrown Felicita's encounters with the vampire Jannik who brings her into his world, different though similar to both her own and what she has experienced in the Hob. Additionally, the death of Felicita's best friend continues to hang over the land and rumors of a sea witch rising from the waters haunt the streets. While all of these converging plot lines eventually come together in a startlingly original manner, the plot threads do become ever-so-slightly choppy at times through the middle of the narrative.
Additionally, the romantic entanglements within this novel are...strange. It isn't quite a love triangle, at least not of the usual variety, but while I enjoyed the ultimate revelations and outcome of the romance in this novel, I was never attached to either of the love interests. But, then again, I do not believe I was meant to be. Felicita never truly falls in love in this installment. While she believes she has strong feelings for a character, they do not overtake the plot at hand and neither do they play a strong role in her own growth. Instead, there are a plethora of stronger, more true emotions regarding the characters in question which contribute to the gray matter and brilliance of this novel. Thus, for those looking for an epic love story in the midst of a rebellion, When the Sea is Rising Red isn't your best bet. (Yet, I encourage romance fans to stick to this series if they enjoy the paranormal for the romance in House of Sand and Secrets is ALL kinds of swoon!)
Nevertheless, there is so much to love within When the Sea is Rising Red, from its complex world to its even more complicated characters whose mistakes are exposed for all the world to see, right alongside their strengths. Another point to note about Hellisen's universe, though, is the fact that it boasts of LGBT characters. It isn't unusual or even regarding as peculiar for two men or two women to be involved in a relationship. For sexuality to be embraced in such a bold manner, particularly in a world where individual freedoms are generally restricted, spoke volumes about equality and diversity in both this fictional world and our own very real one. Needless to say, for fans of the paranormal with just a touch of fantasy magic, romance, and strong contemporary relationships, When the Sea is Rising Red offers something to love for everyone. Moreover, for those looking for a haunting, thought-provoking read, Hellisen's debut is sure to keep you up late into the night. And, really, aren't those the best kind of books?