I have two of A. M. Dellamonica’s books on my TBR pile that both sound delightful. When I came across this on NetGally, I couldn’t resist. The cover is gorgeous and I was in the mood for pirates. Well… this book was “not for me” as they say. I hope the author’s other books are more up my alley than this.
CHILD OF A HIDDEN SEA
by A. M. Dellamonica
Published by: Tor, 24 June 2014
eBook: 336 pages
My rating: 4,5/10
Review copy from the publisher
First sentence: Sinking.
One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.
The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.
Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered… her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.
But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world . . . or is doomed to exile
I’ll forgive a book many flaws as long as I like the characters. A.M. Dellamonica created some that give the impression of being interesting, without ever really being so. Sophie, the protagonist, felt very much like a one-trick pony to me. She is a marine videographer and, naturally, interested in the flora and fauna of this new crazy place she’s discovered. That is her one defining quality. Apart from that, all I can say about her is that she’s a decent human being who is shocked to find that slavery exists and certain nations are raging homophobes. Other than that, she is a blank piece of paper.
Bram, her genius little brother, had so much potential. Not only is he supposed to be incredibly smart, he is also gay in an environment that isn’t completely okay with homosexuals. The chance for great storytelling basically seeps out of him, yet all of his potential remained unused. The only show of his intelligence is that he picks up the language within weeks. Other than that, he is a commendable brother, keeping his sister motivated, but doesn’t get enough screentime to be anything more than cardboard.
As for the other characters – Verena, Parrish, Tonio – they sadly didn’t even get that one character trait that Sophie has. Most men in the Fleet are breathtakingly beautiful and Sophie makes sure to mention this every once in a while. The others are simply mouthpieces for bad dialogue, without any visible agendas or lives of their own.
Stormwrack is a great idea. Its capital city is a fleet of ships, constantly in motion, and the world contains many nations with different cultures and languages. So far, so wonderful. Too many fantasy books forget that – if you remove them even a little bit – people will develop their own habits, mannerisms, linguistic quirks. Stormwrack isn’t a homogenous world where, if you’ve been to one place, you’ll know what the others are like. There are tons of things to discover, a paradise for a marine videographer and scientist.
The use of magic – and it is used heavily – felt disingenuous though. If you know a person’s name, you can scrip them and do all sorts of things. To me, it seemed insane that people would go around using their real names if it gives everyone so much power over them. If Stormwrack made any sense, people would use a fake name for everyday dealings, and their real name only for closest family and friends. On the same note, if magic were as easy as it is here, why would people still die of hunger whenever they can’t catch enough food by natural means. Why not just scrip their fish traps or something? I got the feeling that the magic wasn’t thought-through at all and the only real repercussion it had on this story is the giant McGuffin that comes up in the second half. Some aspects of magic (say, how to get from the real world to Stormwrack and back) are conveniently never explained at all.
One of its strongest points – the language – ended up being bungled as well. Initally described as Italian-ish (that much is true, the words sound sort of Italian), the language is used more and more inconsistently throughout the novel. Suddenly, very English-sounding names are mixed in where they weren’t before. Inhabitants of Stormwrack have trouble understanding Sophie’s modern slang. They have to ask twice what “gay” means (in the context of sexuality) but three pages later people throw around the word “queer” as if they used it every day. Now maybe I’m just nitpicking, but if it’s glaring enough for me to pick up on a first reading, it bothers me and makes me enjoy the book less.
What about the writing style, you ask? Let me welcome to exposition-land. As so many books do, Child of a Hidden Sea starts out as wonderful fun. A young woman with an interest in marine life is thrown into an unknown world with about a million species of plants and animals that she wants to study. I didn’t mind reading about Sophie examining this plant or that dragonfly wing for paragraph after paragraph. Her passion was tangible and as such, made for interesting reading. Once Sophie is drawn into the politics of Stormwrack, however, we take a sharp turn to the country of long and boring exposition.
Sophie knows nothing about how Stormwrack works and naturally has to be told what makes this society tick. Or, you know, there’s always the possibility of her discovering it herself. Not so in this novel. You get long and jarring explanations of this nation or that, the tensions between free countries and those that hold slaves, mostly wrapped up in bad dialogue.
I suppose this is the number one reason why the dialogue felt so very terrible to me. It’s not that the actual words used were in some way wrong. It’s just that so much is talked about unnecessarily. Not only is Sophie told everything by whoever is conveniently standing next to her, but characters also rehash events that the readers have witnessed first hand.
The second reason is that, on more than one occasion, I forgot who was talking. By use of words, it was impossible to tell who is who, which may be a minor point, as long as the descriptions surrounding the dialogue make clear who is speaking. But there were scenes when two people talk and suddenly a third person would chime in that I didn’t even know was in the room. The same thing happened the other way around. Three or more people would hold a conversation and suddenly it would be just two of them left, without me knowing where the others went.
I’m not an inattentive reader and I don’t think I’m too stupid to understand an author’s hints. But I was constantly jarred out of the narrative by the confusing dialogue. The narrative I didn’t care for much in the first place. Throw in a completely wasted “romance” that doesn’t come to any sort of conclusion, and you’ve got Child of a Hidden Sea. Just like Garland Parrish, a beautiful face on an ultimately empty container. A pretty cover on a bland book.