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I Belong

Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

Title: When the Sea is Rising Red

Author: Cat Hellisen

Genre: YA Fantasy

Series: N/A

Publication Date: February 28, 2012

Format: Hardcover, 296 Pages

ISBN-10: 0374364753 (Farrar, Straus Giroux)

ISBN-13:  978-0374364755 (Farrar, Straus Giroux)

Reviewed by: Emmy


After seventeen-year-old Felicita’s dearest friend, Ilven, kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own death and leaves her sheltered life as one of Pelimburg’s magical elite behind. Living in the slums, scrubbing dishes for a living, she falls for charismatic Dash while also becoming fascinated with vampire Jannik. Then something shocking washes up on the beach: Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic. Felicita must decide whether her loyalties lie with the family she abandoned . . . or with those who would twist this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.

Quick & Dirty: The world building is intense, every detail from the caste system to the vampires was perfect as a backdrop to this debut.  The plot was good too, even if you can’t connect with the secondary characters very well.

Opening Sentence: She’s not here.  I hunch deeper into the protection of a small copse of stunted blackbarks.

Excerpt: Yes

The Review:

From the very first page Hellisen evokes a world made up of prisons. The social hierarchy is of castes, and each caste has its own rules. For Felicita, it means that she listens to every command from her brother’s lips without question. For the Hobs, it means keeping away from the Lammer Houses and their places on the streets.  The Lammers control the magic of the city and each family controls their magic wielders through scriven, a silver powdered drug that lets them tap into their power.  Scriv is tightly controlled by the men in the Houses.  Along with their university educations they have a better control of their magic, no matter how powerful the women are they can’t twist a breeze or conjure a vision without any scriv.

Felicita only receives the barest pinch–a few grains a day–from her brother, who parcels it out like a miser. Despite being of the Pelim House, the most important family in Pelimburg, Felicita has no more freedom than the lowest servant. Despite being spoiled–for all the restrictions she is still very well off–it’s evident early on the Felicita is a survivor.  She knows what to do under her brother’s wrath, when to pick a fight and when to walk away. Her friend Ilven throws herself over Pelim’s Leap to escape an arranged marriage and Felicita runs off into the night to escape the same fate.

But Ilven’s suicide and her own faked death begin to cause problems for the city. Beyond the magic of the Lammers, the Hobs have stories of the boggerts and the sea-witch of the river. Stories the Houses have written off as fables, but the Hobs consider truths. As the Red Tide sweeps into Pelim, the Hobs say the suicides have called the sea-witch up. More bad luck strikes Pelimburg, and bodies begin to wash ashore. Felicita realizes there’s definitely more to the stories than the Houses are willing to believe.

Jannik is our first look at the mythical aspects of Hellisen’s world. He’s a vampire, though not exactly how we think of them today. He lives his life under a matriarchy, and as the youngest of three brothers will serve the rest of his days as a servant to his magic-less sister. His life is lonely, not only because he lives in fear of his powerful mother, but because he has dreams outside the life he’s forced to live.  He keeps Felicita’s secret and as her fascination with him grows, they become something like friends. But whereas Jannik is quiet, collected, and lonely it quickly becomes apparent that Dash, Felicita’s love interest, is the opposite.

Dash is also known as His Flashness on Whelk Street–think of him as something of a crime lord without any real organized crime. Felicita quickly finds herself in his world when she finds herself in need of lodgings and gets taken in by his group.  He’s suave and handsome and full of secrets, but he can keep Felicita safe, and that’s what she needs most while hiding from her family.  Quickly, it becomes clear there’s more to Dash than meets the eye. He has a mission within the city. One that will end up dangerous for more than just Dash, but for Pelimburg.

I loved the world building in the story. It was creepy and restrictive–the perfect background for this novel.  One of the things that made it so great was that Hellisen let’s the reader figure most of the world out on their own, or very gradually, and that makes the whole city seem much more realistic. It was hard to connect to the secondary characters of the story.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, because as an elite Felicita has a hard time too.  However, it did make the reading a little slow at times.  While the plot was predictable at times, it was so intricately woven into the setting and the magic of the world that it was also uniquely its own.

Notable Scene:

I stare at the girl.  So she’s spoken out against my House.  She’s not all that many years older than me, but her poverty and the children she’s had have sucked her dry, left her withered.  Only her eyes are bright and fierce.

The sharif steps up to her, an iron blade in one gloved hand. In his other is a contraption for holding the jaw open.

She stands straighter. “Fuck you, an all,” she says. “House dog.”

One of the sharif holding her clouts her jaw, and she laughs.  It’s a manic sound. “I stand by it. Everyone knows it’s true. What’s a life to a House, handful of brass and thank you very much–” She doesn’t get to finish what she’s saying.  They force the mouthpiece in and pul her tongue straight with iron pliers.  She shrieks, a ululating sound, the howling of a struggling cat.

Angry mutters sweep through the crowd, and I force myself to watch while they split her tongue in two like a viper’s.

Before they are done, I’m pushing through the crowd, desperate to be away. I’ve only ever heard of these punishments, never before witnessed them. the way Owen spoke, he made it sound like they deserved it.

They don’t.

Gris. No one does.

FTC Advisory: Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided me with a copy of When the Sea is Rising Red.  No goody bags, sponsorships, “material connections,” or bribes were exchanged for my review.

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