When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen
Published February 28, 2012
When the Sea is Rising Red is an intriguing read filled with moody atmospheric prose. There is a lurking darkness in the world, shown subtly through the warnings children sing/chant in the streets, the history of beings with significant magic being hunted down and killed, and in the tales about a sea witch hungry for sacrifice. Young women born to the great houses and lives of privilege escape their fates through suicide often enough that the cliff from which they jump to their deaths is known as ‘Pelim’s Leap’.
After her dearest friend Ilven kills herself in order to avoid an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Felicita considers her choices and opts for a life of freedom over life as a privileged woman subject to a man’s every whim. Faking her own death, Felicita disguises herself as a member of the working poor and gets a job scrubbing mugs in a teashop. She’s drawn to lonely but gentlemanly vampire Jannick, and to Dash, a charismatic rogue and leader who has secrets of his own, but when Ilven’s death calls forth from the sea a dangerous power, Felicita must decide if her loyalty lies with the family she abandoned or with those who would twist the darkness to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system.
The novel’s greatest strength is its interesting world building. There is a clear class divide between the great houses like House Pelim, which the protagonist Felicita is born to, and the poor of the city, and the city itself has a realistic grittiness to it. The great families in this book have a distinct patriarchal hierarchy in which daughters are destined for arranged marriages that will better their house in some way. Until marriage, a young woman is the property of her father or her older brother, and she is educated only until she is married and goes to live with her husband. The high houses are also dependent on scriv, a drug that activates their magical ability for a brief time, and Felicita experiences a form of withdrawal and ache for the drug’s presence when she is forced to leave it behind. Vampires inhabit an equally strict world but one that is a matriarchy, where women inherit regardless of whether or not they are powerful and have magic. The presence of various magical folk tale creatures, from selkies to unicorns, further enhances the unique world that Hellisen has built.
Felicita is a realistic and flawed protagonist. Naïve and sheltered, she has come from a life of privilege and doesn’t easily leave behind her assumptions about vampires and the working class. She also has a blind spot when it comes to her family and what they are capable of. Yet for all this, she’s also courageous enough to make a choice to change her story and leave behind all she knows. She is also hard-working, and stands up for her principles. Although Felicita realistically longs for the comforts of home, such as expensive sweets, shoes that fit her, and a warm soft bed, she stays the course and makes the hard choice in order to maintain her freedom.
When the Sea is Rising Red is a bit of a slow-starter, but it’s worth reading for the way it surprises by going against type and turning classic YA fantasy tropes on their head. Yes there is a love triangle (of sorts), but the resolution of it was a pleasant change, and it is truly a book where the heroine takes control of her own fate, at least as much as the restrictive world she lives in will let her.
Yet for all the good aspects of this book, there are a few things that hold me back from absolutely loving it. Without spoiling too much, I wish the reader had gotten more about the Felicita-Owen dynamic since her feelings towards her brother felt a little unresolved and I was hoping for more insight into how she feels about him by the end of the book. Particularly given Felicita’s initial unwillingness to believe anything bad about her family, it would have been nice to see more of a transformation in her as she questions all she knows.
I also thought the novel took a long time to get going, and although the moody atmospheric writing is strong, the first third or half of the book reads like a pretty typical YA novel:
- Protagonist escapes her privileged but terrible circumstances by running away from home.
- She disguises herself, gets a job among the working poor, and makes friends/allies.
- She’s also attracted to a mysterious bad boy dandy of a man, but also to a vampire who treats her well but has secrets of his own.
It certainly helps that the book goes on to spin these conventions in different directions, but it felt very run-of-the-mill to begin with. When the Sea is Rising Red is a short read though, so it’s easy enough to read on and get absorbed in this interesting and haunting world, and in Felicita’s quest for freedom.