Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: June 18 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
In a word: a harrowing adventure, a determined heroine, an unbreakable friendship, all written in lush and poetic prose.
The thing…was bright red, craggy-skinned, and the size of Father’s fist, which was to say not very large but with a great deal of presence; around it limbs coiled like petals circling a flower’s heart. The water came halfway to the top of its bulbous body. It made kettle noises at her. Good sense rolled right out of her head with the silly thought that adventures started with such things; plunging her hands into the water, she drew it out on her palms.
Sea Change is a marvel of a novel, a fairy tale filled with magic, evil witches, bad mothers and fathers, true friendship, bandits, trolls and one dead tailor who can sew a miraculous coat. This is not a novel to take lightly; it’s not a quick read and it’s definitely not a “beach read,” although it would nice if it were, since the story revolves around the sea. I started this book with very little to go on, and it surprised me. Wheeler’s prose is glorious and reminded me of gothic castles, sea-swept cliffs and foggy moors. I was transported to another time and place, lost in the twists and turns of Lilly’s seemingly impossible quest to rescue her dear friend Octavius the kraken. Sea Change requires some time to read, not because of its length, but because you’ll want to savor the words and immerse yourself in the descriptions of Wheeler’s world.
Lilly is only a young child when she meets Octavius, a palm-sized kraken that she finds on the beach. As the years pass, the two form an unusual friendship and spend as much time together as possible. But as Octavius grows bigger and bigger, he must venture out to sea for longer periods of time to hunt for food. Meanwhile, Lilly is trapped with her stifling family, a mother and father who want little to do with her. Her father, a marquis, does not feel Lilly is suitable as an heir, mostly due to the large birthmark that covers half her face, and he longs for his wife to have another child.
After Lilly is brutally attacked by her father, she knows the time has come to leave home, especially since she hasn’t seen Octavius in months and is worried about him. She sets off to find a troll who can locate her friend, and there begins her strange and circuitous adventure, as she is sent from place to place, making bargains along the way, all in the hopes of freeing Octavius from his prison.
OK, I will say it: I absolutely loved Octavius. He is a sea monster who is so smitten with Lilly that he agrees to never kill and eat humans. He is gentle with Lilly even after he grows larger than her, and I loved the author’s descriptions of how he wrapped his tentacles around Lilly’s ankles and wrists whenever they met. Unfortunately, Octavius is absent for most of the second half of the story while Lilly is on her journey. I almost wished the story had alternating chapters from Octavius’ point of view, but I guess that would be a different book entirely. Luckily, all of the other characters are engaging in their own way and keep the story interesting. Lilly is such a wonderful creation, a pragmatic young girl with very little to look forward to in life, due to her birthmark, who goes out of her way to treat others properly. And Lilly and Octavius together was simply a treat. I also loved a character named Horace, the witch’s servant, a man who used to be a mule! He and Lilly develop another wonderful relationship that grows deeper as the story progresses.
The story takes a disturbingly gory turn when Lilly gets to the house of the troll and makes her first bargain. I was not ready for what the troll wanted from her in exchange for Octavius’ location. But you have to remember there’s magic in this story, and nothing is ever quite the way it seems. What starts as a simple quest to find Octavius turns into months of deal-making and promises before Lilly can finally complete her task. I only lowered my rating by a half star due to a slow and confusing middle section, when Lilly encounters the bandits who have stolen the witch’s skin. She spends a long time in their camp (at least it felt like a long time), helping with chores and waiting for just the right moment to steal back the skin, and I felt as if the story stalled in this section.
But Wheeler sure knows how to put her characters in terrible situations, knowing that in order to get out of them they will have to pay a steep price. Lilly and Octavius end up paying more in the end than they expected, when Lilly must make a final and heartbreaking decision. Fair warning: you will be amazed, shocked, grossed-out, saddened and blindsided by emotions if you read Sea Change. Highly recommended.
Oh, and I have to mention that each item that makes up the letters on the book cover is important to the story. I didn’t realize that, of course, until I had finished the book. I love it when publishers do smart things like that!
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
If you haven’t already, click here to read my interview with S. M. Wheeler and enter to win one of THREE copies of Sea Change!