Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

When the Sea is Rising Red Book Cover When the Sea is Rising Red
Cat Hellisen

In Pelimburg – city of storm and sea and spray – magic is power. Both are controlled by an elite class, who inhale scriven dust to enhance their natural talents.

As the only daughter of the city’s founding family, Felicita has a luxurious but narrow life, one that is ruled by a list of traditionally acceptable and appropriate behaviors. When her dearest friend, Ilven, throws herself over the cliffs and into the sea to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own suicide and escapes to the slums, leaving behind everything she’s ever known, including the means to practice magic. Soon she’s living in a squat, working as a scullery girl, and falling hard for charismatic renegade Dash while also becoming fascinated by the strange, thrilling magic of vampire Jannik.

Then translucent corpses begin to wash up onshore. As it becomes clear that Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic that the upper class with their scriven are powerless against, Felicita must decide where her true loyalties lie – with the family she’s abandoned, or with those who would harness this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.


At first glance, When the Sea is Rising Red may strike you as a story you’ve seen countless times before. Felicita, the protagonist, is the daughter of one of Pelimburg’s wealthiest and most powerful families. As such, she is expected to be dutiful and obedient, doomed to enter into an arranged marriage and live within the bounds of Pelimburg’s patriarchal society. Sounds pretty familiar so far, right?

Don’t be fooled. As standard as the beginning of this novel may seem, it’s really just a façade. You start off thinking you know where the story is headed, and that’s when Hellisen grabs you by the throat and takes off in a completely different direction.

Beneath the veneer of predictability and propriety lies the real story, an entrancing world of magic, revenge, passion, and power. There’s drug use and LGBT relationships, casual sex and contraception, murder and betrayal. This isn’t a story that’s been sanitized to the point of dullness. The characters are vivid and flawed, the plot full of unexpected twists and turns. This book took me completely by surprise, and I was mesmerized it.

The turning point from same-old-story to “wait, where did that come from?” occurs when Felicita’s best friend Ilven, also rich and destined to marry a stranger to advance her family’s position in society, throws herself from a cliff. Felicita, devastated but inspired, decides to fake her own suicide in order to defy fate and escape her family’s clutches.

After Felicita’s supposed demise, she trades the cool, stately halls of House Pelim for dirty, noisy streets that reek of fish and are peopled by beggars, prostitutes and gangs. It’s not long before she flings aside her mantle of propriety and timidity, taking up with a group of urchins and becoming as brash and bold as the rest of them. In no time at all she’s guzzling liquor, telling people off, and falling into bed with near-strangers. She’s a protagonist with bite, and I had so much fun reading about her life that I was practically giddy.

While living in disguise, Felicita meets a host of fascinating characters, the most interesting of whom is the mysterious Dash. Shrewd, clever, and charismatic, Dash is one of those dangerous types who you don’t entirely trust but find yourself attracted to anyway. He becomes one side of the book’s explosive love triangle – and boy, what a love triangle it is! Even if you don’t normally care for this sort of thing in fiction, I promise you this – the one in When the Sea is Rising Red will knock your socks off.

Another thing I love about When the Sea is Rising Red is the setting. I’ve always been a fan of books that take place near the sea – there’s something about the rocky cliffs, the smell of brine, and the wildness of the ocean that sends a thrill through me when I read about it. What’s especially cool about Pelimburg, though, is that it’s not just any seaside town; it’s a seaside town where remnants of magic linger. Unicorns, vampires, selkies, and other enchanted creatures coexist with the non-magical beings, and some members of the ruling class even have the ability to wield magic. This collision of ocean and enchantment makes for a fascinating backdrop indeed.

As Felicita tries to adjust to the town and its inhabitants, she learns that escaping her old life and cutting ties with her family won’t be as easy as she’d hoped. Strange red tides, diseased ocean life, catastrophic shipwrecks, and mysterious corpses beget fear among the working classes of Pelimburg, who believe that Ilven and Felicita’s suicides have brought a curse upon the land. This belief compounds the people’s long-held resentment towards the ruling Houses of Pelimburg, Felicita’s family included, and incites sparks of rebellion that are quickly fanned by those who wish to bring down the Houses.

This is the part of the book where things got a bit murky for me. The connections between Ilven’s death, House Pelim, the eerie behavior of the sea, the revolutionaries, etc. are hard to keep straight at times, especially towards the end. I wasn’t clear on all of the cause-and-effect relationships, even after rereading the book.

Still, the characters, unexpected turns, magical seaside atmosphere, and that mind-blowing love triangle are more than enough to compensate for a little confusion towards the end of the novel. I definitely recommend When the Sea is Rising Red and am already on the hunt for the second book in the series.

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