Tell if you’ve heard this one before:
A young, perky college student — a little lost as they search for a purpose in their terrifying maturation from youth to adulthood — is whisked away to a fantasy world, thrust into the middle of a crisis that, if they’re not complicit in finding a solution, will be disastrous for their newfound friends. By leveraging their otherworldly knowledge (and modern technology/understanding of medicine/science), they’re able to triumph over the bad guys and restore peace to the troubled fantasy land.
You might be thinking of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. You wouldn’t be wrong, all of these are popular examples of “portal fantasy.” Unlike protagonists in traditional epic fantasies, who at least understand most of the overarching societal values and some of the physical/metaphysical rules of the world, portal fantasies allow the author to cast a character who has no more understanding of the laws and societies of the fantasy land than the reader themselves (and often less, if the protagonist isn’t an avid fantasy fan who’s probably seen it all before). Over the course of the novel, the reader discovers the world, magic, etc. at the same rate as the protagonist. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but therein lies the issue with most portal fantasy: we have seen it all before.
Along the way, Sophie, who’s intensely curious and fearless, unravels a plot that threatens the archipelago’s decades-long peace treaty
From the outside looking in, A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of A Hidden Sea isn’t much different than its compatriots. Sophie Hansa and her brother Bram are thrown into the world of Stormwrack, an archipelago-based society made up of over 200 countries, each confined to their own island. Along the way, Sophie, who’s intensely curious and fearless, unravels a plot that threatens the archipelago’s decades-long peace treaty, discovers her hidden heritage (natch), and whets her biologists’ appetite by cataloging every living specimen she can get her hands on (also whetting her biological appetites with a few of the locals, if you know what I mean…). Like I said, we’ve seen it all before.
However, every so often a book comes along that is more than a sum of its parts, and there’s no better way to describe Child of a Hidden Sea. Despite being full of easily recognized character archetypes, genre tropes, and plot devices, Child of a Hidden Sea rises above these factors that anchor down similar novels. Like Noah’s rising seas, Child of a Hidden Seas buries the chaff under miles of water, and lets only the tips of the tallest, most impressive mountains peek through to the surface. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s so much fun to read, and exploring the world of Stormwrack is so fascinating, that it transcends those issues and exemplifies why they’ve become tropes in the first place.
Stormwrack itself is a wonder of world building. Child of a Hidden Sea isn’t a long novel, clocking in at 336 pages, but Dellamonica fills every page with details about the world, its ecology, cultures, politics, and religions without ever falling back on tiring exposition or page-long infodumps. Instead, Sophie and Bram are constantly observing their surroundings, asking questions, and exploring, all the while interpreting and intuiting answers as they nurture their understanding of the world. Each little aspect about the world raises more questions about its origins, and allows the reader to interpret the signs alongside the siblings. Dellamonica weaves some tantalizing hints about the connection between Stormwrack and Erstwhile (the Stormwrackers’ name for Sophie’s home world), but reveals only enough to the reader that everyone will be left with a slightly different interpretation by the end of the book. This aspect above all others begs for Dellamonica to continue writing stories in Stormwrack and peeling back the layers of its twisted, fascinating origin.
The labyrinthine politics on Stormwrack are also handled elegantly by Dellamonica, mostly by virtue of the fact that she ignores the vast majority of the 200+ colonies on Stormwrack, and focuses Sophie’s adventures around three or four of the most extreme/influential societies/religions. Child of a Hidden Sea stands on its own, with its plot wrapped up nicely by the final pages, but along the fringes of Sophie’s story, the reader is shown glimpses of the vast diversity among Stormwrackers, and Dellamonica’s world has a lot of room to grow if she decides to write more novels in Stormwrack.
In Stephen R. Donaldon’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, its protagonist (I hesitate to call him a hero), Thomas Covenant, famously rejects the idea that he’s been transported to a fantasy world, and through most of the series the reader is left on their own to decide whether they side with Covenant’s belief, or whether he’s wrong and the fantasy land does exist in truth. It’s a fascinating exploration of the human mind’s insistence on understanding its surroundings. Sophie Hansa attacks the world in a different way: intellectual deconstruction.
Stormwrack, unlike Erstwhile, is filled with magic, and Sophie immediately begins to explore the origins, possibilities and limitations. This jumping-into-the-deep end approach is a natural and believable reaction to Sophie’s dramatic situation, and allows her to avoid the severe depression that follows Thomas Covenant through his own experiences in fantasy land.
What did magic mean, exactly? The ability to defy the laws of physics? To create little pockets of something—space, time, both?—where they didn’t apply? Or to access other universal rules that twenty-first-century science, at home, just hadn’t touched yet?
The spiderweb sail ruffled in the breeze, gaily defying common sense and physics.
I wonder what Bram will say about this?
Early in the novel, Sophie’s innate curiosity is confronted by one of the native Stormwrackers:
“But you seem possessed of a truly all-devouring curiosity—”
“That’s not a disease!” The words came out sounding braver than she felt. If they could teach her Fleetspeak in a matter of hours, they could certainly wipe her memories.
“Those who question find the ill in everything,” Annela said, in a tone that hinted it was a common saying.
Sophie argues with everyone she meets.
Sophie spends most of her time in Stormwrack arguing with everyone she meets. Unlike the average portal fantasy heroine, Sophie does not immediately begin seeking a way to restore the status quo (returning to her world), but instead jumps head first into Stormwrack, fascinated by its otherworldliness and the dense cultural-diversity of the archipelago. The people of Stormwrack, however, are, at best, ambivalent to her presence, and, at worst, actively trying to send her back to her home world — not because she’s fated for disaster (though Dellamonica does have fun with the outsider/prophecy trope), but because she’s a political inconvenience. Sophie spends most of the novel trying to convince the Stormwrackers to allow her to stay in the world.
John Scalzi is (in)famous for writing whipcrack science fiction that embraces sharp, hyper-clever dialogue as a main narrative device for pushing a simple plot that relies on likeable characters and amusing situations to keep readers turning pages. It’s become something of a science for Scalzi, and Dellamonica applies the same methods to fantasy. By casting a contemporary heroine, Dellamonica is afforded an easy, modern narrative style that contrasts pleasantly with the Renaissance-era world of Stormwrack.
Unfortunately Sophie’s precocious personality encourages irritating verbal wordplay that can be, even at the best of times, amusing, and at the worst of times, exhausting. Her and her brother Bram are a mile-a-minute partnership:
Bram emerged from his room, looking rumpled and wholly alert. “Someone mentioned my favorite alkaloid.”
“Your caffeine delivery system’s coming. And the steward thinks the guy who attacked Gale might be from a place called Isle of Gold.”
“What are you wearing?”
“Conto gave me some stuff. It’s probably polite to wear it, right?”
“It’s optimal if you’re hoping to look like casual Friday in Alice in Wonderland.”
“If I wanted a lecture from Fashion Cop, I’d have brought Fashion Cop.”
“I’m a first-rate multitasker.”
Dellamonica earns the rocky early pages by crafting a plot that naturally builds around Sophie’s personality.
Over time, however, Sophie’s personality begins to grow on the reader, and, like an unchallenged student pushed in educational directions that encourage growth, these irritations and quirks in her character are slowly revealed as strengths and endearing tools that help her navigate the Stormwrack’s labyrinthine political landscape. She continues to challenge everybody in sight, but toward a purpose that the reader is finally invested in (thanks, in part, to the death of one character who, at every corner, attempts to ground Sophie and keep her safe in an unpredictable and potentially volatile situation), and the verbal combat becomes as entertaining and suspenseful as any fireball-flinging, sword-clashing fight scene.
This narrative-style comes to a surprising and satisfying head during the novel’s untraditional climax. Admittedly, this approach might not work for all readers, and during the first chapters, I was worried it wouldn’t work for me, but Dellamonica earns the rocky early pages by crafting a plot that naturally builds around Sophie’s personality, and would play out much differently if Sophie was less confrontational, less clever, or, even, male. There’s a narrative balance to Sophie’s personality versus the accepted norm in Stormwrack that speaks to Dellamonica’s plot- and character-building.
What violence exists in Child of a Hidden Sea is used for great effect, and each violent encounter has consequences that ripple through the entirety of the plot.
What violence exists in Child of a Hidden Sea is used for great effect, and each violent encounter has consequences that ripple through the entirety of the plot. Without falling back on fantasy’s proclivity for resolving issues with violence, or creating character conflict and/or suspense through violence, Dellamonica relies on dialogue and character interactions to provide conflict that remains both tense and amusing throughout the many over-the-top situations that pop up along the way.
Plot contrivances are fairly common in Child of a Hidden Sea. Sophie’s an active character, who’s consistently engaged with moving the plot forward, which is a nice change from the average portal fantasy heroine, who is so often guided along by a hand from the local fantasylanders. However, a lot of the decisions she makes don’t always make sense, and usually lead to one of the two outcomes: a) creating a problem that didn’t need to exist, b) solving a problem in a way that isn’t always clear and/or telegraphed to the reader beforehand. Now, the core of fiction is to present the protagonist with problems, and watch as they strive to overcome them, but Sophie’s problems seem to occur as often because she makes out-of-left-field decisions, as much as because the novel’s working conflict (particularly the man named John Coine, referenced in the quote below) are actively getting in her way.
Take the quote below, for example:
“We were looking for someone who’d tell us what was up with the Ualtarites. A busy port…” She faltered. Why did all of her ideas sound so much better before she gave them voice?
You’re not a cop, Bram had said.
“Sorry,” she said. “Is this stupid?”
“It’s quite sound,” Parrish said. “Let them think we’re concerned enough to consider seeking the Heart.”
“We are concerned,” Bram said, coming up on deck. “We’re super concerned.”
Sophie pretended she hadn’t heard. “Okay. We’ll play-act at looking for the Heart and snoop around trying to figure out why the Ualtarites are helping John Coine.”
Child of a Hidden Sea is portal fantasy at its best.
Despite having a plethora of options, many of which involve the aid of national authorities or police/military groups, Sophie’s solution for fooling John Coine and his partners is to wander around a port pretending to be searching for one thing, when she’s actually just snooping around for another. As a reader, I was screaming at Sophie with at least three more sensible options for entrapping Coine, but she couldn’t year my words through the pages of the book. It’s fun, and the plot gets moving again, but eye-rolling decisions (not only from Sophie, but most of the cast) and plot diversions are plentiful and require some suspension of belief on the part of the reader. Sophie’s tale will whip you around like a rollercoaster, so, just like those amusement park rides, you must let yourself be caught up in the momentum, give yourself over to the avalanche of plot twists and contrivances, and then you’ll have a blast just getting from the beginning of the journey to the end.
Child of a Hidden Sea is portal fantasy at its best. A.M. Dellamonica writes with a fresh voice, and the world of Stormwrack is filled with diverse characters and cultures, creating a genuine sense of empathy in readers as they travel alongside Sophie Hansa in her quest to maintain peace in the archipelago. By rising above its genre tropes, Child of a Hidden Sea proves that there’s still life in portal fantasy, just as long as the author breathes hard enough. Child of a Hidden Sea tells a complete story, but the top-notch worldbuilding, fun dialogue, and hints of future adventures ensure that fans will be clamouring for more stories in Stormwrack.