I’m honestly not sure how to review S. M. Wheeler’s Sea Change (excerpt here). It’s a bit like trying to review a poem, or a piece of music; descriptions seem to fall short of the actual experience of reading it, and the themes are subtle and made to be absorbed slowly.
On the surface, Sea Change is the story of a girl named Lilly and her friendship with a kraken named Octavius. When Octavius is captured by traders and sold to a circus master, Lilly must embark upon a quest to free him. Lilly is told that she must obtain a magical coat to exchange for Octavius’s freedom, but the coat maker is dead and his (presumably magically) animated corpse is being held by bandits, so she must sell her services to the bandits’ captive witch in order to rescue him. Add in a troll from whom the price of directions is high indeed and the beautiful dark-wife who would consume the circus master’s soul—and Lilly’s to boot—and you have a recipe for one incredible story.
Sea Change is a story about friendship, and the lengths to which we will go for those who truly matter to us. It is a story about the shackles and expectations our parents place upon us, and the ways in which we must shake them off in order to become our own person. It’s about love and loss, but not in the usual way. It’s about understanding one’s own body, and about how strange it can be. It’s about change. And it’s about the sea.
Wheeler’s prose is incredible, and refreshingly unique. I did find that it got a little muddied in places, especially when she was describing action, but overall it was gorgeous. Her world was similarly inventive—it reminded me of the Grimm fairytale worlds, and there’s a wonderful line in the book where Lilly observes that magic makes as little sense as she expected it to. Magic is a very ethereal thing, it doesn’t seem to have any structure. The only hard and fast rule is that you don’t get something for nothing; everything has a price, and it must be willingly given.
Lilly is a wonderful character, and an inspiring one. She is the daughter of a Marquis who was once a common soldier, so her childhood is rich and pampered. However, she is burdened with a birthmark that marks her both as unattractive and, in the beliefs of many, cursed or possibly a witch. This complicates her relationship with her parents and with children her own age, and in the beginning of the story she is quite alone in the world, except for Octavius. There is a hint of quiet strength about her in the early chapters, but after Octavius’s capture we get to see much more direction and agency from her. This is where Lilly blossoms, and we see her overcome pain, fear, physical difficulty, and impossible puzzles.
While her ultimate goal to save Octavius is the motivating factor, and one she does return to for strength, Lilly’s determination seems to transcend even that powerful drive. We see Lilly decide not to let things beat her. We see her endure difficult physical labor, keep company with thieves and monsters and learn to empathise with them, and lose more of herself than she could ever have imagined possible—and yet she never complains, even in the privacy of her own mind. Indeed, she seems rarely to notice herself, and while this could be seen as a flaw, the end of the novel has a surprising revelation about the person Lilly has become, the person she has decided to be, that proves that she has not dismissed herself.
If you’re not a fan of slow-burn introductions and lots of description, you may find that Sea Change has a little difficulty holding your attention in the first few chapters, especially because, as I mentioned earlier, Wheeler’s prose does tend to get away from her a little at times. However I urge you to keep going; events become clearer and before you know it, you will be completely swept away. Like the magical coat Lilly is seeking, many of the threads don’t come together until the last few chapters, but I’m not ashamed to admit that when they did, I was in tears. Sea Change struck home with me on a very personal level, and I think a lot of readers will see a little bit of themselves and their own struggles toward adulthood and self-realization in Lilly’s adventures.
And maybe a little bit of magic, too.
Sea Change is available now from Tor Books.
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett is a longtime lover of the sea and ocean imagery. They never had a kraken for a best friend, but they did get to take care of their fifth grade classroom’s hermit crab on Christmas vacation. You can find them on facebook or on twitter.