I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler
Published by Apex Book Company on June 21 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: Weird and atmospheric, this short novella will mesmerize some readers, but may be just too strange for others.
Her mouth split in a smile, the first expression he’d seen of her other than intent study. She stopped pacing, hands resting on her hips. There was no moon, but Jackson would have sworn (and would swear years later) there was, because there was a light in the girl’s eyes, milky and liquid, a thing he could drink down and not regret.
Lovecraft-inspired novels seem to be springing up everywhere these days, and here’s one more for the list. I was instantly drawn to the odd yet beautiful cover of The Kraken Sea, of a man (boy?) seemingly caught between two worlds. And guess what? The cover is a good representation of the themes you’ll find in this book. It’s the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who is trying to fit in, but he can’t because when he gets angry or feels threatened, his hands and feet morph into tentacles, and scales begin to appear on his body. Tobler has created a creepy and atmospheric story that gave me a vague feeling of unease while I was reading it. And unfortunately, “vague” is the word that springs to mind as I’m trying to figure out my reaction upon finishing this book. While I loved the creepiness and appreciated Jackson’s plight, trying to figure out who he is and his purpose in life, the story itself just didn’t quite work for me.
Jackson lives in a foundling hospital and has always had trouble making friends with the other orphans. He’s just too different. But one day, a mysterious woman named Cressida adopts him and takes him back to Macquarie’s, a rambling fortress with wonders and secrets around every corner, and promises him a life where he can meet others of his kind. As Jackson begins to explore his new home, he meets a girl named Mae who, it turns out, he is not allowed to befriend. Mae lives in the north part of town, where Jackson isn’t allowed to go. But Mae is just too fascinating to resist, and so Jackson sneaks out to visit her in a club called Bell’s where she works as a showgirl.
But Mae turns out to have some secrets of her own, and soon Jackson is caught in the middle of an ages-old battle between rivalry groups. As he begins to piece together the many mysteries around him, Jackson realizes he must choose sides in order to survive.
The story is told exclusively from Jackson’s point of view, so the reader sees everything through his eyes, which is one of the reasons I found this so atmospheric. Jackson’s world is terrifying, not only because of what he is, but because his new home is full of things he just doesn’t understand. Cressida scares him most of all, maybe even more than the horrors that wait in the basement under Macquarie’s, and so Jackson seeks out Mae, who he thinks is a safer bet than Cressida (although Mae is pretty creepy herself, and probably just as dangerous). I loved all of Tobler’s eerie details, from the pair of living gargoyles guarding the doors of Macquarie’s to the tiny “merelings” (baby mermaids!) for sale at the market, to the giant kraken who lives in the basement and eats shadows and severed heads. It all added up to an amazingly vivid and terrifying world.
But as atmospheric as it was, I didn’t feel as if the story were strong enough to complement those details, and I found that ultimately this was just too strange for me. Part of the story revolves around Mae and Sister Jerome Grace and their ability to manipulate the “threads” of people’s lives (Jackson figures out who they are pretty early on, but for some reason I had a hard time grasping exactly what was going on until much later in the story.) It’s a cool idea, but just too far on the weird scale for me to fully appreciate, I guess.
I also struggled with the pace and flow of the plot. Jackson spends much of his time with a man named Foster, who takes him around town on strange errands, and I enjoyed these scenes by themselves. But then there are other sections where Jackson hangs out at Bell’s, watching Mae perform in her weird, circus-like act (which turns out to be much more sinister than it first appears), and then other sections that take place in Macquarie’s where we observe Jackson watching translucent women dance on stage. And something weird is going on with Cressida and a trunk full of shadows. It felt like a series of weirdly wonderful vignettes that didn’t quite manage to come together into one cohesive story.
But all this is held together by Tobler’s lovely writing, its simplicity the perfect backdrop for such a strange tale. For readers who enjoy taking a few details and connecting the dots themselves, this will probably work very well. And even after writing this review, I’m still torn. Parts of The Kraken Sea were delightfully strange, and exactly the kind of thing I love to read. But for me, the story was missing some connecting tissue that could have made it even better. But I will tell you one thing: I’m hooked on Tobler’s prose, and I can’t wait to read more.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.