It’s become an annual tradition of mine to head over to New York Comic Con each year, buy a bunch of stuff that I tell myself I’ll read, use, etc., and then never do it. I’ve got piles of books from NYCC over the years that have totally gone untouched due to time and moving on to the next thing. One of these books, as you can probably already guess, is Child of a Hidden Sea – A. M. Dellamonica’s latest fantasy novel. I found it perched nicely in its own pile next to Words of Radiance, Lock In, Goblin Emperor, and so on. And it caught my eye. Because wow. What a beautiful cover. Seriously tremendously gratifying to behold. Probably the best cover of 2014. I had to have it.
But unlike 75% of the novels, I really wanted to read this one. I promised myself I’d get to it. And I’m so happy I did. Child of a Hidden Sea takes portal fantasy to a place I’ve never been before. Following in the footsteps of the great C.S. Lewis, Dellamonica pushes the genre further, makes the protagonist a far more realistic one, and delivers a superb book.
Sophie Hansa, said protagonist, is adopted and searches out her biological family. Upon finding her mother in San Francisco, who gets very angry for her sudden reappearance, Sophie gets caught in an alley brawl and ends up saving her biological aunt, Gale’s, life. Next thing she knows she’s in the middle of the ocean, getting rescued by sailors straight out of a pirate story. It turns out she’s travelled to a world known as Stormwrack. The attempted murder or Gale Feliachild is soon discovered to be part of a conspiracy that could shake the world out of its current hundred-plus years of peace and into war.
Stormwrack is, as far as this narrative suggests, entirely a water-world, with small islands here and there. The way Dellamonica portrays how a society that lives on ships could work, fantastical and primitive as it is, is grandly thought out. One of the most imaginative ideas this book has to offer is the Fleet, a giant island-esque massing of ships from all the different nations, essentially taking the place of another book’s city.
The lingering mystery about the world of Stormwrack and how it came to be is hugely interesting. Many times throughout the novel we’re led to believe this is actually the same Earth Sophie grew up on, just changed. Whether it’s the future, a parallel universe, or other, is never fully realized. But some characters who are aware of the Earth or place Sophie is from refer to it as Erstwhile. This suggests Stormwrack does exist in the future, as well as does the title Stormwrack – it makes it sound as though a great storm wracked the earth. They even have their own version of the Noah’s ark legend, and the language of Fleetspeak has ties to Italian, as more corroborating evidence.
There is a magic system to be developed here; scripping as it’s known. To scrip something means to literally write down a spell or order that sets a certain thing or intention into motion. Scripping can be used in any number of ways, as the book will show you, as long as you have someone or something’s full name. These spells won’t work unless the full name is spoken. I think there’s a lot to be said about the efficiency of the system, but think the boundaries of what can and can’t needs to be a little tighter, a little stricter. You can turn people into monsters, you can make someone ageless and pretty, you can make them die, teach them different languages or skills… What can’t you do? I hope the next book goes into that a bit better.
Sophie Hansa is a great character, proactive and relatable. In many ways, as the voice of the book, I feel this is also A.M. Dellamonica’s voice as a writer. It has a sort of wonderment, a whimsy. As Sophie discovers the world and all its magic brilliance, so too does Dellamonica. But when it comes to some of the other characters – Tonio, Parrish, Annela – I feel their voices, their dialogue is interchangeable. And on occasion I felt they took and understood Sophie’s strange phrasings and colloquialisms (many of which would never appear in your average fantasy novel, as they’re 21st century terms) far too well. Only on occasion would they say to her something along the lines of “I don’t understand.” I’d have liked to see this occur more often, and have Sophie, in turn, try and speak in a fashion easier for them to understand. Sophie does do better in this respect by the end of the novel.
The cover depicts a half ferret, half snake hybrid, and I really wanted this to show up more prominently, but it only showed up on occasion. But all in all, what a fun novel. I wish I would’ve read this last year, as this totally would’ve made it higher on my 2014 list. If you need a break from the pervasive grimdark we see all over the place, take a load off your shoulders and just enjoy Child of a Hidden Sea.