As soon as I read this book’s blurb, I knew that it would be a 2012 purchase. It turns out that it was given to me as a gift by the boyfriend, but had he not bought it for me, I would have parted with the cash myself. From the blurb’s promise of its contents, I was really excited to read When the Sea Is Rising Red. My copy arrived when I was part way through another read but as soon as I’d finished it I curled up with this one, ready for a magical adventure.
Title: When the Sea Is Rising Red
Author: Cat Hellisen
Publisher: Farrar Straus Girroux
Target Audience: YA
PoV : 1st person
Tense : Present tense
Story: 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.
Thoughts and impressions: Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy is one of my favourite series. There are some similarities that I personally drew between Canavan’s books and Hellisen’s début. To be clear, these similarities were only in my own head as both authors have created very different and distinct worlds for their characters to inhabit. But this did mean that When the Sea Is Rising Red had to live up to the very high standards set for it in my own head. I have to say, it did a very good job but it did fall short in one specific area: the magic.
Now, the magic system introduced was truly fascinating. The main character, Felicita, is the daughter of one of the ruling Houses, which in turn means that she has magic at her disposal when she ingests a very specific drug. There are three types of magic: the ability to read people’s emotions, the ability to see the future, and the ability to manipulate air molecules. Felicita and her family all have this last ability.
When Felicita fakes her own death, she goes to the city’s slums and the people that she takes up with mention that the Houses waste their daughters’ magical abilities (as they’re treated more like breeding stock and don’t get to train properly) and their leader, Dash, would be able to achieve a lot if he could get one to his side. I read this as hinting that maybe use of the drug isn’t actually necessary for Felicita to tap into her magic, but unfortunately this never happened. While it’s true that Felicita does play a role in Dash’s plans at the end of the day, I don’t see how he could have used a daughter with one of the other two abilities as Felicita’s specific power played a big role in his plan. Maybe I attached too much importance to that hint, but I felt disappointed that it didn’t live up to the promise that it delivered and was essentially rendered moot.
Then there was Jannik’s vampiric magic. Felicita describes it as a sort of tantalising presence that calls to her but, as Jannik himself explains, he is unable to do anything with his own magic. When it became clear that Felicita wasn’t going to be able to access her magic on her own, I switched to hoping that she would somehow find a way of dipping into Jannik’s magic in order to fuel her own powers. Again, it didn’t happen. In fact, other than being a siren call for Felicita, Jannik’s magic didn’t seem to have any particular role at all.
All things considered, though, the magic turned out to only be a fairly small part of the plot. The story is very slow moving, which won’t appeal to all readers, and focuses mostly on how Felicita’s adaptats from the life of the privileged to the life of the poorest city dwellers. This forces her to face some of the atrocities committed in her family’s name that she hadn’t been aware of and it gives her a completely different outlook on life. There is a lot of animosity among the city dwellers towards all of the ruling Houses, but especially towards her House, House Pelim, from which the city of Pelimburg takes its name.
At this point, the story focuses on exploring the city life for its poorest citizens and on developing the relationships between the members of Dash’s gang, especially the one between Dash and Felicita, which quickly becomes physical. Another thing that’s explored is the attraction between Felicita and the vampire, Jannik, and what being a male vampire entails.
Eventually the threat of a sea witch summoned by the suicide of Felicita’s friend, Ilven, is introduced and becomes the focus of the story. It quickly becomes obvious that Dash has his own personal vendetta against Felicita’s brother, which clouds his judgement to the point where he could, arguably, be considered mad. This part of the story and especially the choices that Felicita is faced with are what made the book shine. These events defined Felicita as a character that demands respect. She had a lot of growing up to do very fast and she managed admirably.
I’m not sure whether or not this book is a standalone or the first part of a series. Events are neatly wrapped up and it could easily be the end of Felicita’s story but at the same time there are many things that could still be explored.
Overall, this book took me on quite the trip. I enjoyed the world and mythology presented and I came to like Felicita. I just wish that the magic had been expanded on more as I felt that its limited role let the book down.
Style: I have nothing in particular to say about the style.
Final verdict: Had the magic been expanded on, this could truly have been an excellent teen read. As it is, it’s caught somewhere between good and great. I have to admit that maybe my expectations were a bit high once I’d drawn the parallels with The Black Magician trilogy, so I’m willing to give this book the benefit of the doubt. 4 stars
Extra notes: Bad language is present. Sex behind closed doors. Also note that this book deals with both homo- and bisexuality as well as drug abuse.