Book review: Sea Change by SM Wheeler (Tor Books, 2013)
The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.
Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly’s quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.
A powerfully written debut from a young fantasy author, Sea Change is an exhilarating tale of adventure, resilience, and selflessness in the name of friendship.
Lilly, daughter of a well-to-do merchant, befriends a kraken as a child. She names him Octavius and they’re BFFs. When Lilly is about 16 or so Octavius goes missing, and as Lilly has more or less been chucked out of the mansion (she was always a disappointment in so many ways), she decides to go searching for him. He’s captive at a circus, but in order to get him back she needs to get a coat, and in order to get a coat, she needs to get the tailor, and in order to get the tailor, she has to help a witch get her skin back, and so on. So the quest begins.
Most of the novel seems to take place at the bandits’ home, where both the tailor and the skin are held captive, as it were. There, Lilly – or Lyle (long, icky story) as she then prefers to call herself – befriends a mule enchanted to human form, and learns a lot about life.
Here’s the thing: You know the classic fairytales, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all them? Do you know how horrifyingly gruesome they are in their originals? Sea Change is like a classic fairytale, and I do mean down to the bit where Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters’ feet don’t just not fit into the glass shoe, but how they chop off their toes and things like that in order to try and fit into it. It’s not necessarily a pleasant read.
To give one example, there’s a skin-less witch. As in, she’s been deprived of her skin, so she’s basically a red glob of ick. And that’s probably one of the milder examples I could have given.
Every new section of the novel starts with a paragraph in italics. I personally thought it was a nice touch, something different, and it reinforced the idea of someone telling you this as a story. It gives it a feel of a narrator reading to you, which I liked, but your mileage may vary.
Sea Change was a good read. I liked the way it was written and the story was captivating. The only gripe I have with it is that very often, the author implied what was happening rather than saying flat out what was going on, which I found really confusing. Often it meant that I had to go over a section again that I had just read, because I hadn’t followed what was going on. The action was going on between the lines, so to speak, and I have a hard time reading things between the lines as it is. (I’m quite literal and read the actual lines, me, not the bits that aren’t there.) When Lilly becomes Lyle, for instance, I had to re-read because I thought “wait, the what now?!” So yeah, I found it frustrating when I had trouble following what was going on or why. Other times it was okay. The two bandits are a homosexual couple (which in itself is a refreshing idea), but is never really stated as blatant as that, even though it becomes more and more obvious.
Overall, Sea Change is an interesting, if puzzling, and at times stomach-turning, read. Kudos for the feel of an ocean nearby, because I really miss that. I wonder if there’s meant to be a sequel.
4 out of 5 tentacles.
Many thanks to Tor Books for sending me a review copy!