“Good, now listen…. The Warden couldn’t have the myth-creatures from the old world wandering around and breaking all of his rules, so he made prisons for them. Cities and caves and deserts and stretches of ocean—most of them inhospitable chunks of the planet no one in their right mind would go to…. The point is, St. Ives is one of those places.”
– Babu Cherion, former Bostonian and paranormal investigator who really, really regrets relocating
Ghost Ocean: a title that understates what all is going on in S. M. Peters’ newest novel. In a way, Ghost Ocean (Roc) is a new take on the urban paranormal; but in other ways, you could consider it a rebirth of an older style of city fantasy.
The small town of St. Ives reminds me of a darker Charles de Lint setting: there are gods and creatures of imagination around every street corner, sometimes literally, often taking on the guise of your kindly next-door neighbor. But in Peters’ St. Ives, the supernaturals’ motivations are twisted by the fact that not only are they out of place in a modern world that doesn’t understand them, but that where they live, even what they are now, is a result of being bound to St. Ives. Not all prisons are cages.
And not all prisoners are the same; there’s the equivalent of the petty thieves versus the equivalent of serial killers: Lovecraft’s horrors, of which the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young is just one nightmare.
This perturbation of theme carries into the human characters as well, most of whom are—or were—the wardens of this odd collection of malevolent creatures infesting every house and cobblestone. The jailed and the jailers—no wonder most everyone is out of their minds by now. So when a Kitsune appears and starts granting wishes, no matter how dangerous or from whom—and gosh, wonder what all the wishes of the hundreds of prisoners, bound for decades or even centuries, are—all hell breaks loose.
Or rather, it did years ago, and is threatening to do so again when the monster wish-granter escapes, and the old guard is unfortunately much reduced from what it was those years ago. So reduced, in fact, that they need to press Te Evangeline, a teenager daughter of one of the murdered wardens, into service too soon, with no training. Even with a surrogate father bear in the form of Babu Cherian, she’s in a world of trouble. Especially since he doesn’t tell her what’s going on.
Yeah. That doesn’t go so well.1
Ghost Ocean is a book of interesting textures, and not just because of the de Lint setting gone wrong in all the right ways. The human adult characters are deftly drawn, distinctive in their personal tics and the rather different ways they approach the job of pursuing the supernatural. While Te is somewhat your “average” kid separated from an insane family and living out on her own with additional supernatural trauma, and Jack definitely your teenage average Joe with all that entails, everyone else is vibrant on the page.
That includes the characters that are dead, and I don’t just mean the single animate dead. The allusions to the history of the wardens and their captives form a provocative and living background to the story. So much so, in fact, that I got online and Googled until I was sure that Peters’ hadn’t published any previous St. Ives books. You normally only get that depth of weft and weave after some five volumes in a typical urban fantasy—the most impressive feat of the book. Along with the atmosphere, it’s almost a drop-dead combination.
Almost, except for the matter of Te, the center of the book. She’s very good, actually, through most of the book, but the fact that Ghost Ocean is almost certainly going to remain a single-book work with a single days-long time frame both works to her advantage and against her. To her advantage: her character development speeds up, with a mostly believable amount of “smart dumb” teenager moves that we get over relatively soon, rather than being tormented by that kind of character weakness for, say, five books.
To her disadvantage: she doesn’t have time to develop enough, in terms of power factor and experience, to take the multiple levels in badass that she does. Oh, there’s quite enough justification for her accelerated progress, but it seems to happen far too quickly. Usually you need years of practice, heart-breaking setbacks, crowning moments of awesome, and development of craft and wisdom to earn your several levels in badass; if you have a single time frame not counted in years, one or maybe two levels is somewhat more accessible.
That leads into the other weakness of the book: the denouement, and even parts of the climax, feel too forced too early, as if one were trying to cram the eventual acceptance and gradual breaking of ties into too few pages. I was left wanting more, which is good, but at the same time I was reminded of why, in more than just satisfying the desire for more story, sequels are sometimes not a bad idea.
Still, if you’re looking for a book that captures a new/old-style urban fantasy experience without expanding into a bookshelf/disk usage/wallet-eating series, Ghost Ocean is ideal.
The Kindle Bit
I have no complaints, actually, apart from Hideous Plaid eBook Cover (especially when the real book cover is so nice). Well done table of contents, including prominent set-off links for stuff like “About the Author,” and I can tell that someone likely converted from an ePub edition via mobigen, because every chapter is a reference guide and allows the Kindler to happily joystick back and forth between chapters, an effective way of paging quickly through a book.
1 What is it about adults versus teenagers in SF/F? Do they really think keeping deadly secrets from inquisitive, intelligent, but terribly inexperienced young adults with too much time on their hands is actually going to succeed and not, for instance, almost reliably make things much worse? That doesn’t even work in the real world.
Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction, fantasy and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis, but will not tell you where she hides the bodies.