book review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

US pub date: 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My review on Goodreads

I’m sure I raised a few eyebrows when I added this to my currently reading shelf. If I’m not into YA and I’m not into fantasy, I am really not into YA fantasy. However! I am someone who’ll read anything that’s been suggested to me, so in an effort to expand my reading horizons, I heeded the recommendation of my friend Hadeer and decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did!

When the Sea Is Rising Red is a paranormal fantasy with a vaguely Dickensian vibe. Think Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol, and then throw in some magic and vampires. This is a moody and evocative book whose real strength lies in the atmosphere that Cat Hellisen creates. And on top of that, the world building in this novel is impressively extensive. Hellisen has a really phenomenal imagination.

The problem is, she wasn’t always able to translate her visions into a cohesive narrative. There are so many incomplete elements to this novel that are full of promise, but they just… never manage to come together in a satisfying way.

For about 90% of this book, nothing happens. And that was fine with me, because I’m someone who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven stories anyway. My problem is that most of the characters were paper-thin, and that the ending was incredibly rushed and dissatisfying.

The heroine of the novel, Felicita, is easily the most three-dimensional character. She’s understandably youthful and naive, and I like that after she runs away from home she frequently considers going back. It’s just realistic that a girl who grew up being waited on in a lavish home wouldn’t be aware of just how difficult it is slumming it, sleeping on a hard floor and scrubbing dishes for ten hours a day. Her feelings toward her two potential love interests, the charismatic low-born Dash and the vampire Jannik, are likewise believable. She’s a solid protagonist that holds the story together nicely.

But really, she’s the only character I even begin to understand. I’m left with so many questions that I doubt will be answered in the sequel, all having to do with secondary characters’ loyalties and allegiances. If you’re going to sacrifice plot for the sake of depicting character dynamics, your reader shouldn’t be left wondering what the characters are thinking, or how they feel about one another.

One of the worst examples of this is the relationship between Felicita and and her brother Owen, which was disappointingly underdeveloped. I didn’t understand the impetus behind Felicita’s decision regarding Owen at the end – it involves a change of heart that’s never fully examined. The whole ending was wrapped up entirely too quickly and neatly – it’s like the whole book was building up to a scene that ended up lasting about two paragraphs.

But ultimately, I enjoyed reading this. Hellisen’s prose is incredibly mature for YA, and the world she creates here is rich in history and mythos. On the surface level, this book is gorgeous and strange and unique and fascinating. It’s in the details that it starts to fall apart. Regardless, I’ll probably be interested in checking out the sequel at some point.

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