It is -2 degrees Fahrenheit as I sit down to write this review, but with the Chicago windchill, the “RealFeel” temperature clocks in at -25. There has never been a better time—wrapped in triple layers and glaring warily in the direction of Lake Michigan—to read a story about controlling the weather. Emily Foster’s debut novella delivered on its promise to bundle me up and away from my freezing reality; from stormy waters to balmy island coasts, The Drowning Eyes transported me to fantastic settings with an even more fantastic cast of characters.
Captain Tazir of the fishing boat, the Giggling Goat, has an (arguably) even better reason than me to want the wind blowing in her favor. Making a living as a sailor is difficult enough without pirates pillaging entire port cities and destroying the storm temples that keep the weather working in her favor. Strapped for cash, the captain and her crew take on a passenger, a skittish young girl that claims to be running from an arranged marriage. But Shina is hardly new to the world of sailing. She may not live and work on a boat, but she’s seen wind and storms the likes of which Tazir can’t imagine. She’s seen them, shaped them, and breathed them.
Some spoilers ahead.
Told from the dual perspectives of Tazir and Shina, The Drowning Eyes follows the Giggling Goat from coast to coast as the vicious group of pirates, the dragon ships, lay waste to the maritime economy. Shina—not at all the rich, naive girl she pretends to be—emerged from the wreckage of one such attack. Before her home was destroyed, Shina was a windspeaker, an apprentice well on her way to joining the religious order that maintains the seas and livelihoods of all the sailors that grace them. Now, Shina will do anything to stop the dragon ships and to retrieve the icon they stole from her temple, to return to her chosen path and to bring peace to the waters of Jihiri Islands.
Captain Tazir, of course, thinks that’s all nonsense. She wants to protect her crew and her passenger, and doesn’t have time for the cult-ish ways of Shina’s temple upbringing. Despite their differences, Tazir and Shina have at least one goal in common: to keep the Giggling Goat afloat. That goal is enough to bring them together in the face of trouble, but dealing with the wreckage of the crew’s relationships afterwards will take more than pride or magic.
I cannot emphasize enough how much I love the weather magic in this story—and not just because it’s good escape-from-winter-fantasy-fodder (though it is that). The mechanics of the magic aren’t fully explained, and that’s fine—a little bit of mystique goes a long way, and considering its narrative function is to be surrounded by religious myth, it actually works well on a thematic level too. And despite being connected to the metaphysical, Shina’s magic seems to be tied almost entirely to her physicality, including her sight and the fullness of her stomach. This makes for an interesting breakdown of the typical spirit/body dichotomy that Tazir clings to so desperately. Mostly, though, I love the sparse and often beautiful language that Foster uses to describe the magic, and the way that it differs between the two narratives. Tazir and her crew call Shina’s weather magic “spitting a storm,” a mix of slang and irreverence. From Shina’s perspective, though, we get gorgeous descriptions, like:
As her chest began to rise and fall in rhythm with the waves, she could start to feel the weather in her body. The harbor was bathed in the wind she’d called the day before—but here, the air was a little slacker. Spent. Shina frowned as it filled her lungs, and when she exhaled she cast her mind out as far as it would go along the filaments of herself that remained in the wind.
The stark contrast between these two points-of-view makes the reading experience in The Drowning Eyes dynamic and engrossing. It positions the reader in a well-constructed world so that we can more readily face its raging storms.
It’s always a good sign when your main complaint about a story is that you want more. And I do—I want so, so much more of The Drowning Eyes. Foster has created a compelling world with a powerful, honestly kind of terrifying system of magic that governs it. Far more than that, though, I want to spend more time with these characters. Tazir, especially, made me giddy; it’s not everyday, after all, that we get a queer, ass-kicking older woman as our protagonist (alongside multiple characters of color, no doubt). Not only that, but Tazir’s relationship with magic is more complex than she ever seems to realize in her moments of criticizing Shina’s “indoctrination.” She depends on it everyday of her life, after all. She also admits that fantasizing about supernatural monsters is easier than admitting to the cruelty and destruction of which human beings are capable. Her arch towards accepting Shina’s decision to return to her temple carries the story at least as much as Shina’s plot to retrieve the religious icon.
That being said, I really do feel that The Drowning Eyes could have been a full-length novel. The ending, which contained some of the most interesting moments of the entire novella, felt rushed and unfulfilling. Foster carries us through a major time leap at the end of the story, which did not bother me as a plot device, but which ultimately let me down in terms of length. I could have read another full novella about Shina and Tazir’s reunion, perhaps even another unnamed sequel after that. I did not, for a second, regret reading The Drowning Eyes, but I did very much not want it to end.
Emily Nordling reads, writes, and resides in Chicago, IL.