Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

Published February 28th, 2012.

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. (

I wanted to like WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED so bad I can't even tell you. Just read the premise. How does that NOT sound interesting? I was so intrigued by it that I really couldn't wait to read it. Unfortunately I got my expectations dashed, mainly because I obviously set them way too high. Maybe it's my fault. Or maybe I've genuinely run into another lackluster book. But here we go.

First impression, the voice was horribly pretentious and stilted and I immediately hated Felicita. Initially I believe she was supposed to be a product of her environment, growing up uber-rich and privileged and taught to sneer down on everyone else. But when she breaks away from the life she found so horrible and actually lives with the people she wants to spit on her views don't change. She almost pines to give up the hard life (after 12 hours, seriously) but is constantly doting on how shamed her family will be if she returns. Constantly. And the way she kept saying Hob about the people around her, to me, always sounded derogatory. Like "oh yeah, that's a nice jacket, for a Hob." Not an exact quote but the situation matches. She wanted, pretty much begged, for help from these people but continued looking down her nose at them. And I hated her for it. She was such a snatch that I honestly couldn't tolerate her. I might have hated her even more than the world, and that was pretty bad. So probably not.

I've come to the conclusion, pretty much as of yesterday, that good world-building is a requirement for my reading enjoyment. If the story it set somewhere other than the here and now the world better be it's own damn character. So when a world fails if the remaining elements, like the story or the characters, don't keep my attention, the book's going to flop for me. This one was a fish on land.

Almost the second I started reading WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED I knew I was going to have to tap into the Turkey City Lexicon because the "world-building" found here belongs in those quotations. I was robbed of what sounded like an absolutely amazing world for what was nothing more than a Victorian-era set story where some of the mundane, normal elements were searched and destroyed at the Word phase to be replaced by pretty "world-relevant" words for no reason other than to look like world-building. To define -

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp

A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.) (Turkey City Lexicon)

To say this is a pet peeve of mine is to say Santa only kind of likes Christmas. This was the world-building here and it drove me up a wall worse than Felicita's atrocious personality. The world itself is not built. There's very little going on there that sets it apart as some kind of fantasy land. There are Hobs but really they're people with browner skin, not actual faery hobs. There's a vampire, whom you'd never know was one if it wasn't for Felicita mentioning it. He doesn't do anything vampirish other than be pale and he may have pointy teeth. There's the mention of scriv, which is some kind of addictive drug that allows those with so-called magic to use their magic. Except scriv is never really defined except mentioned as a magic-enhancer made from unicorn horn. That's about as deep as it gets. I read to the halfway point and the only actual use of magic I saw was from Felicita's brother who held her in place with magic, rooted her to the spot, I guess. Although from how much of a dick he was he could probably do that with fear alone.

The "real world-building" existed in the switched out words: look-far (lookout), Gris (seemingly their god, not defined or elaborated on to the point I read), dragon-dogs (no definable difference from hounds), uni-foal (I'm assuming a baby unicorn as opposed to the literal 'one foal'), nilly-flesh (I have no idea, I'm assuming fish flesh, it's never explained), and sea mews (which I assume are seagulls although just before she mentions white gulls but sea mews aren't explained and they're a flock so I have no idea what else they'd be, according to Wiki they're your standard gulls but by context I'm led to believe they're something else and just not explained), just to name a very few. Throw in some random unicorns and funky names for the town and some rivers and OMG NEW WORLD! It's cheap and I felt cheated. This is not world-building; it's cloaking. It's a beautiful, super-repressed, super-caste Victorian society but lets not pretend it's something it's not. I did really like the family set-up that was going on, between the high-Lammers and the vampire houses. The society alone was the best part of it all. That's a story in and of itself but that's pretty much all the originality this story can boast. I just wish there was more of it.

The story itself, buried under all of this, seemed to be okay. Extenuating circumstances not withstanding I would have liked to have seen how Felicita fared and just what Ilven's death conjured up in the deep. A kracken, maybe? But between a heinous MC and a poorly-built world I just couldn't get involved. I had too much pulling me away from the story and not anywhere near enough to keep me interested. If I have to admit it to myself, the shoddy world-building hurt worse than the MC. It's just so cheap. As if the author picked random elements out of a hat and though "I can use this . . . and this . . . and this . . . and this . . ." and BAM! "World." If I have to even more admit it to myself, I'm actually insulted. Lipstick on a pig. Now there's just whale fat on my perfectly good bacon. Take it away.

I know I didn't mention it before but I did mention I only got halfway through this one, it's a DNF. I tried. I really did. I wanted to like it but I just couldn't. Cinda Williams Chima? THAT'S world-building. This is a t-ball player in the major leagues. Sorry, but it affected me that much. I'd like to know how it ends but I can't bring myself to keep reading. It's Goodreads rating is pretty high so there are people enjoying it. I guess if you're not as picky about world-building as I am then you'll probably enjoy it. Even I had a few pieces that I liked. Although I didn't find anything redeeming about Felicita.

Ban Factor: High - Vampires and magic in a world without Christianity as the driving pious force? Are you kidding me?
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