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12 July 2014

Book Review | Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica

Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica | June 2014 | Tor Books | Hardcover $25.99
This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

★ ★ ★ ★ 

When I wrote about A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (from my Classics Club list), I said that I thought of it as "old style" fantasy -- but I couldn't quite put my finger on what, exactly, I actually meant by that. After reading Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica (and an Anne McCaffrey book that I'll review tomorrow), I think I might finally be able to put my thoughts into words.

But first, let's get the obvious out of the way: yes, Wizard and Child share a remarkably similar setting (primarily ocean with lots of scattered islands) and magic system (name-based). I'm pretty sure that was intentional on the part of Dellamonica. She's actually open to questions on Goodreads until the end of July, so I took the opportunity to ask specifically about this -- I'll update this post if she answers!

Edited to add --
The answer is: No, actually, Dellamonica hasn't had a chance to read any Earthsea books yet! Well, I bet she might like them. Plus, she shared some pretty interesting-looking recs (hit that link to see them). Maybe it is true what they say about great minds... ?

So: old vs. new style fantasy. What does that mean? (Skip to the plain ol' review if book blather bores you.)

There are two parts to this, IMHO. The first part is prose style. Does the author use lots of flowery, nearly poetic language, and does he/she actually include some poetry or fantasy-flavored songs? Or is the prose more casual, with perhaps less focus on the package than on the content? And what about POV -- is this a tale that's being woven by a storyteller, or are we riding along with the characters as the plot unfolds?

The second thing that can influence whether a fantasy feels "old" or "new" has to do with intention and tone. Is the reader meant to glean some kind of life lesson or philosophical point from the book, or is the focus all on the characters/action/world-building? Does the book have an air of serious literature, something to be thoughtfully savored? Or is this the sort of book that one might pack for entertainment on the long plane trip to ComicCon?

The quintessential "old" fantasy is, I think, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. Contrast that with, say, the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson as an example of "new" fantasy. Compare C.S. Lewis's Narnia (old) to Tamora Pierce's Tortall or to Terry Pratchett's Discworld (both new). These are all so-called high fantasy stories, but they're quite distinct reading experiences.

That's not to say that there can't be some nuance or gray area here. The Redwall series by Brian Jacques was published fairly recently, time-wise, and it does have some elements of the new style (lots of action and entertainment value), but overall I think it fits in with the old style stuff (plenty of poetry/singing/riddles, often morality-heavy, very little in the way of casual modern language). Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books are similarly difficult to pin down -- but in the end, I think the multiple intimate POVs and the insanely detailed settings tip it to the side of the new style.

Child of a Hidden Sea fits very clearly into the new style. Comparisons to A Wizard of Earthsea can only ever be superficial because the reading experiences are so different. Where Wizard needs to be read attentively, maybe in small doses in order to absorb each lovingly crafted piece of the story, Child was, for me, a quick and happy binge-read. The focus in Dellamonica's book is on Sophie Hansa's accidental adventure and her relationships with other characters and the really interesting new world around her, as opposed to Wizard's rather more poetic focus on Ged's coming of age and acceptance of his magically projected inner darkness.

As for an actual review of Child of a Hidden Sea: I quite liked it, and will probably purchase it for our library. The characters could perhaps use a little more sculpting and polishing, but I think the fantastic world-building and nearly continuous action (not a slow spot in this book!) more or less make up for that. As always, I'm a sucker for an interesting to world to explore. The fact that the inhabitants of this new world actually seem aware of the "real" world (even if it is some sort of state secret) adds to the mystery of how/why Stormwrack exists.

I'm interested in the intended sequel(s) because I want to know more about the politics and ecology of Stormwrack; what happens to Sophie and her brother and their new-found family/friends is also of interest but not my main concern! I could definitely relate to the main character's obsession with the wildlife and social structure of her unexpected home world. I halfway wish that the entire book had been devoted just to her explorations and evidence/specimen gathering. Ah, well.

Publication information:
Dellamonica, A.M. Child of a Hidden Sea. New York: Tor, 2014. EPUB file.

Provided by publisher via NetGalley.


I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

1 comment:

Louise said...

Hm, the moral focus or investigation of some aspect of humanity does seem to be the common denominator among SFF classics, doesn't it? The only "new style" I can think of with that sort of quality (off the top of my head) is the Discworld novels -- biting social commentary + humor -- and I can totally see some of those books being considered "classic" in a generation or two.

As for books being a product of the time they were written in, I like to contract Le Guin's Earthsea with McCaffrey's Pern -- both are clearly from the 1960's in some ways, but I think Earthsea is much more commonly considered classic because of the philosophical focus and poetic nature.

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