It’s been a while since I’ve read an epic fantasy novel, YA or not. This week’s review is of Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong and marks my first foray into a work by this prolific author. Not knowing Armstrong or any other works, I think probably helped me approach Sea of Shadows without any preconceptions or expectations.
In the Forest of the Dead, where the empire’s worst criminals are exiled, twin sisters Moria and Ashyn are charged with a dangerous task. For they are the Keeper and the Seeker, and each year they must quiet the enraged souls of the damned.
Only this year, the souls will not be quieted.
Ambushed and separated by an ancient evil, the sisters’ journey to find each other sends them far from the only home they’ve ever known. Accompanied by a stubborn imperial guard and a dashing condemned thief, the girls cross a once-empty wasteland, now filled with reawakened monsters of legend, as they travel to warn the emperor. But a terrible secret awaits them at court–one that will alter the balance of their world forever.
So this blurb just about gives away the entire story. Really. No spoiler warning required because it’s all in the blurb.
I enjoyed Sea of Shadows, although I often found myself wondering why. Most of the book is spent partly with Ashyn as she bumbles through the wastes with her thief turned protector confronting monsters, and partly with Moria as she bumbles through the wastes with her obdurate guard turned friend confronting different monsters. At times, I just wanted the girls to get to court, because that’s where the secret and intrigue awaits, but it’s literally only in the last couple of chapters that the girls make it to court. Granted the ‘secret’ – aka plot twist – is pretty clever and does throw quite the curveball, but the book ends where the blurb does and left me feeling cheated and rather disappointed. I knew this was a trilogy, but I did expect more story and less traipsing through the wastes in the first installment.
Why did I like it then? The characters, or more specifically, the character interactions. The girls are superbly teemed up with boys who act often as foils and sometimes as mirrors. Ronan is a thief who challenges Ashyn’s rather black and white perspective on the world. He’s also been around the block, which makes for some funny and blush-worthy banter between him and the ever so innocent girl. Moria is the antithesis of her sister: brash, opinionated, argumentative and far more open if no less experienced in the ways of the world. Her guard is an equally opinionated warrior, and their scathing repartee (which of course develops from animosity into affection) makes for entertaining reading. I read this book for the characters and I will probably return to finish this trilogy because I have come to care deeply about this foursome.
The weak point in this book is the world-building. We have a forest of restless souls, which come back as the walking undead called shadow stalkers, and these shadow stalkers are only kept at bay by warriors of the North. If it sounds familiar, I guess that’s because GRR Martin called dibs on anything undead strolling around the North. The world also seems to be somewhat influenced by Asian culture with character names like Kitsune and Tatsu and a scene that hinted at the use of chopsticks rather than knives and forks. I really liked the Asian aspects but they seemed few and far between, with the girls – the main heroines – being described as pale, red-headed northerners. There are other characters, however, with darker skin and ’tilted’ eyes. The description of the architecture also seemed odd to me – going from pretty standard Castle Black-like villages to something that called to mind the white-washed abodes of Greece and then perhaps something resembling the Forbidden City. I’m all for a non-Western, non-European fantasy, but this felt like it couldn’t quite make up it’s mind about whether the influences were Western or Eastern. Perhaps the rest of the series will flesh out the world-building a bit more. I hope so, although I’m not sure that will save it from feeling a little derivative.
Come to think of it though, can any epic fantasy these days survive being compared to Martin or Tolkien? Some of the most cliched elements of fantasy are the reasons I love the genre!
Sea of Shadows is a highly enjoyable YA fantasy read with characters you can really care about even if the plot isn’t terribly exciting in this first book. I’m definitely going to read book 2 so Sea of Shadows scores 3.5/5 ink splats from me.