Cat Hellisen’s debut novel, When the Sea is Rising Red, is a (delightfully queer!) young adult second-world fantasy set in the highly gender-and class-stratified city of Pelimburg — a city that has seen better years, its economy now half-dismantled and its ruling Houses falling on hard times. The protagonist, Pelim Felicita, is the only daughter of House Pelim: useful as a trading chip for marriage, lacking autonomous citizenship or personal freedom, and bounded on every side by a rigidly defined set of acceptable social roles. The story kicks off when Ilven, Felicita’s romantic friend and only refuge from an abusive brother and smothering mother, commits suicide after having been bartered into a marriage she does not want. Trapped in a similar situation herself, Felicita decides to escape in the only way that seems viable: she fakes her own suicide and disappears into the city.
While that may sound melodramatic, in Hellisen’s hands it isn’t. The immensity of Felicita’s decision to flee is weighed, realistically fleshed out, has honest motivators and consequences, and ends up being anything but easy or pleasant. Significant choices and their consequences are the driving forces in When the Sea is Rising Red. Hellisen’s willingness to engage with often vicious levels of realism, to chart the effects of her characters’ decisions, is what makes the novel a success — there are prices to be paid for everything and the results aren’t always intended. (You can read a prequel to this story for free here on Tor.com.)
Also, to my great pleasure: though When the Sea is Rising Red is a second-world fantasy book, it isn’t the beginning of a series; it is a stand-alone novel. Not only that, it’s a stand-alone novel with a rich and perfectly sketched world — just enough detail given to leave me hungry for more, but not so much as to be burdensome — and a fully realized, fully executed plot, as well as a cast of characters who are all well developed.
This is almost a difficult novel for me to talk about, in part because it hits so many of my personal, subjective, “oh, wonderful!” buttons. There’s a large part of me that just wants to yell, “Queer relationships! Romantic friendship! Major character death! Feminism! Magic that costs! Impossible decisions! Social criticism! Ethically complex characters!” and let it rest there. All of these things are ingredients that meld to make When the Sea is Rising Red a book that speaks to me and speaks to me loudly. And yet, to simply enumerate these components is to make them sound like a checklist, and this novel is certainly not a checklist — it is organic, engaging, fascinating, and genuinely upsetting. In a word, it is brave.
In one sense, When the Sea is Rising Red is a brave book because it subverts, fiddles with, and outright discards the common tropes of YA fantasy. The obvious choices are not made or are intentionally unmade. The love-triangle, present in most YA with a romantic subplot, is tilted delightfully off of its typically monogamous, heterosexual axis. Felicita engages in a physical relationship with Dash (the manipulative, charismatic, and ultimately treacherous young man who leads the gang she comes to live with) while she’s also in an emotional relationship with Jannik (the bat who takes an interest in her and seems to be living a mirror of her old, restricted life). But here’s the thing: Jannik is in a passionate, physical relationship with Dash, too. Oh, and there isn’t much concern in any direction about the lack of monogamy.
I was thrilled by the honest complexity of interpersonal interaction in this novel — things are not so simple as “character A likes character B and C, and has to choose one, while they both compete for her attention.” The men don’t compete for her, as they’re in a relationship with each other, and after Dash’s selfish and sacrificial death in the remarkably brutal climax, Jannik and Felicita — who were both involved with him intimately — decide to marry. There is sex and there is birth control; there is emotional complexity and real-life adult decision making. The fast-moving plot of the novel — dark magics, revenge, betrayal, and the destruction of the city — is buoyed and supported by the wealth of character conflict and development.
Part of what pleases me about When the Sea is Rising Red is that sense of realism. This is not a book that softens its blows or sanitizes its content. I was reminded in particular of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, another YA novel that engages frankly with issues of class, labor, prostitution, drug use, and sex — not to be shocking, but because these things are there in the lives of the characters. While I fully admit a preference at play here, the things most likely to frustrate me in a book are neatness and twee-ness; Hellisen is honest enough as a writer to avoid either of those pitfalls, even and especially as someone writing a book about and “for” teens.
On the same note, the class and racial divisions in Pelimburg are strict, violent, and ruthlessly enforced; Hellisen interrogates these tensions in great detail. The historical and current interactions between the Hobs, “bats” (vampires), and the low and high Lammers drive much of the story, including the murderous climax and resultant Pyrrhic victory: Dash is willing to enact a great and terrible vengeance for himself while naming it vengeance for his oppressed society, and is able to gain support because of the truly nasty class situation in Pelimburg. Only Felicita is unwilling to play ball, because she sees through him — but if she doesn’t play her part, more innocent people will suffer and die. So she makes a choice and shuts Dash out of her safe-zone when wild magic is wreaking havoc. Because of her choice, he kills himself as a sacrifice to the ghoulish remnant of her dead friend, Ilven, and nearly takes Jannik with him — the whole purpose of which is to summon the dreadful sea-witch and mark Felicita’s brother for death by her.
Of course, since he’s dying and willing to twist every last bit of complicity out of her, he puts one last task to Felicita: mark her brother for the witch, or she’ll run rampant through the city claiming her dead. I could say Felicita has no choice, but the truth is, she does have a choice: to let the city suffer or to murder her own brother. She chooses to murder her brother, and the destruction is stopped at high cost.
Felicita and Jannik are the survivors of Dash’s successful conflagration. In the dénouement, they manage to bargain their way out of their families — Jannik because as a male he is useless to his, Felicita because the damage she has already done her family’s reputation is so great that it’s better for her to marry and move to manage their holdings in another city. They escape to start anew, and so it is in some ways a happy ending, but the significant choices they have made and the high prices they’ve paid to get where they are hang over the pleasant closing scenes. The damage is done and the healing has to begin. While the climax is bleak, the ending gives a nod to how survival and perhaps even happiness are possible, though they’ve both lost a man that they loved.
In a nutshell: When the Sea is Rising Red has a fabulously constructed magic system, wild and dangerous but also fiercely regulated; complex characters, none of whom are entirely free of ethical ambiguity; an intriguing, driving plot that builds through subterfuge, manipulation, and betrayal; and finally, prose that interrogates complicated social and personal issues while also constructing a believable, immediate world for the characters to inhabit. The novel is a coherent, satisfying whole and a fast read that provides both fun and subversion. I enjoyed it and recommend it for readers looking for a YA novel that’s doing something different.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.