Complex stories with beautiful language can be compelling and even popular. Just look at Shakespeare — hundreds of years after his death, people are still reading his work. In the case of Cat Hellisen’s young adult fantasy When the Sea is Rising Red, the beautiful prose can’t make up for the muddled story and uninteresting characters.
Hattiesburg residents: Pick up a copy of When the Sea is Rising Red at the Oak Grove Public Library on Old Highway 11.
17-year-old Felicita lives in the city of Pelimburg in which vampires roam freely (but at the bottom of the social ladder) and the entire upper class society is dominated by men. Felicita belongs to one of the city’s wealthy founding families, but poor little rich girl’s life isn’t all sunshine and roses. Her father died when she was young, and her brother Owen runs her life the way their father would had he been alive. When Ilven, Felicita’s best friend and sorta kinda maybe secret lover, kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita is subsequently (and conveniently) engaged. She fakes her own suicide and escapes to the slums of the city. She starts to fall for the charming Dash, but a vampire named Jannik knows who she really is and won’t leave her alone. So what does she do? Well, she starts to fall for him too, of course. Meanwhile, bodies are washing up on the same shore that Ilven threw herself off of…and they’re not from shipwrecks. The sea goddess is upset at Ilven’s death, and demands a sacrifice that has ties to Felicita’s past and present. Will Felicita find out the truth? Will she do the right thing? And, most importantly, will anyone really care?
The narrative really is well written. In some ways, the story is reminiscent of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, complete with the male dominated society and protagonist with a dead father and a jerk for a brother. (In both stories, the brother also has a pregnant wife.) But unlike Forest, the characters in Sea are just plain dull. It’s difficult to feel sorry for Felicita when she has grown up not only in a wealthy, privileged family, but in a male dominated society on which she holds views that are not believable. A society that would be seen in our modern Western culture as sexist is, as far as the reader knows, all these characters have ever known. Sure, there are always characters who disagree with their society’s values and structure enough to challenge them — just look at The Hunger Games and The Giver. But Katniss and Jonas never would have gotten anywhere if they had spent the majority of their respective stories complaining. At times, the story is too focused on driving home a point, rather than telling…well, a story.
But the story does have one major strength: The romance. Hellison does a good job at building up the sexual tension in an otherwise bizarre love triangle. In fact, the romance is the only interesting part of the story. Maybe that should have been focused on more, rather than the muddled world building.
In short, When the Sea is Rising Red was way too muddled and the protagonist was not interesting enough to make for a compelling story. Unless you’re absolutely captivated by urban fantasy or vampires, you might want to look elsewhere.
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