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.

Review:

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.

Review: Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Vampire Academy Book Cover Vampire Academy
Richelle Mead

St. Vladimir’s Academy isn’t just any boarding school—it’s a hidden place where vampires are educated in the ways of magic and half-human teens train to protect them. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a bodyguard for her best friend Lissa, a Moroi Vampire Princess. They’ve been on the run, but now they’re being dragged back to St. Vladimir’s—the very place where they’re most in danger...

Rose and Lissa become enmeshed in forbidden romance, the Academy’s ruthless social scene, and unspeakable nighttime rituals. But they must be careful lest the Strigoi—the world’s fiercest and most dangerous vampires—make Lissa one of them forever.

Review:

Oh, Vampire Academy, I had such high hopes for you. I read such great things about your characters and your plot that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on you, but once I did…you were a big, fat, letdown.

I just didn’t find this book entertaining. I had a hard time making it through to the end, and the only thing that kept me from giving up on it was an absurd hope that it would miraculously becoming interesting at the end. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The plot was anticlimactic, and I can’t say I was really interested in any of the characters. Rose, the protagonist, is the only person in the book who has any spunk, but she’s a bit too abrasive for me to find likeable.

In addition to the utter lack of excitement, another problem I had with Vampire Academy was that I didn’t find it very convincing. I was unclear on the “rules” of the vampire world. For example, the vampire teenagers drink alcohol at parties, so does this mean they’re also able to eat regular food in addition to drinking blood? And why on earth do the students who are training to become vampire bodyguards study such ridiculous subjects? “Bodyguard Theory and Personal Protection” makes sense, but “Slavic Art” and “Animal Behavior and Physiology?” Really?

I also had a hard time buying into the strength of Lissa and Rose’s friendship. Lissa comes off as weak and bland, and Rose has the opposite problem of being snarky and arrogant; I just couldn’t understand what they see in each other. I suppose that their bond could be partially explained by the fact that they have a long history together, what with it being Rose’s duty to protect and defend Lissa. Still, I’m not convinced that this would add up to the unwavering love and devotion the two of them supposedly feel for one another. Loyalty is one thing; deep and abiding friendship is another entirely.

There are a few positives about this book. There are some humorous scenes that I appreciated, especially the witty banter between Rose and her male classmates. I also enjoyed a certain steamy scene that comes toward the end of the novel. Otherwise, though, I was definitely unimpressed.

I’ve heard that Vampire Academy is the weak link in this series and that the books get progressively better as they go on. I guess I’ll never know for sure, though, as I have no intentions of reading the next installment. If Mead didn’t thrill me with book number one, why should I trust her to do so with book number two?

Review: Black City by Elizabeth Richards

Black City Book Cover Black City
Elizabeth Richards

In the aftermath of a brutal and bloody war, in the still-smoldering Black City, sixteen-year-olds Natalie Buchanan and Ash Fisher do the unthinkable – they fall in love. Natalie, a human and the daughter of a government official, is still reeling from her father’s murder by a crazed Darkling, upending her entire life. So how can she now be falling for Ash, a brooding half-blood Darkling boy? Natalie’s heart betrays everything she’s ever believed with one magnetic beat, forcing her to choose between her family and the boy she loves.

Ash tries desperately to deny his feelings for Natalie. She is a Sentry brat, after all, the very Sentry who would love nothing more than to see all Darklings totally eradicated from the United Sentry States. For now, they’ve settled for banishing all Darklings to the wrong side of a ghetto wall. Despite being half-human and being allowed to live on the human side, Ash is still scorned everywhere he goes, always wondering what it would be like on the other side of the wall with his own kind. Then Natalie steps into his life, a calming force, and he, too, has to choose. But choosing Natalie could get them both killed.

Review:

I really enjoyed Black City, but I feel like I shouldn’t have.  It has some major flaws and can be a bit absurd at times (especially the last third of the book), yet I just couldn’t put it down.

The thing about Black City is that the action never stops. This is both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, it kept me from getting bored, grabbing my attention from the very beginning and racing ahead so quickly that I found it hard to keep up at times. On the other hand, the very fact that you can’t keep up makes the book overwhelming. Richards packs her book with so many twists, turns, and “oh my!” moments that the story comes off as a tad sensational. To demonstrate, my thoughts while reading went a little like this: “Wait, did he just…did she just….wow, didn’t see that coming! Or that! Or that! Is this really happening right now? What if…oh my. Oh my! OK, really? This is getting a bit silly. OK, I’m taking a break. Really, I’m going to take a break. Right after this…oh my! OH MY!”

I wish that were an exaggeration. I really do.

There’s almost too much going on at once. Forbidden love, revolution, epidemics, family secrets, drugs, parallels to the Holocaust and the U.S. civil rights movements – it’s a lot to take in. There are times when it feels like Richards is going for the shock and awe factor rather than allowing the plot to follow a more natural, believable course. I found myself cringing every now and then at the ludicrous turn of events.

That being said, I can’t deny the fact that I really did have like reading Black City. There are two reasons for this – the romance and the fascinating customs of the vampires, or Darklings as they are called in this story.

Many of the reviews I’ve read of Black City accuse Richards of creating an insta-romance between Natalie and Ash, but I actually don’t think the attraction between them is that sudden or far-fetched. The two have spent their young lives essentially isolated, Natalie because she is the daughter of a high-ranking governmental official and Ash because he is a half-breed, neither fully human nor fully Darkling. As a result, they are independent, lonely, and curious about the areas of life with which they have little experience. It’s no wonder that they’re so intrigued by one another after their first meeting. Despite initial distrust and even a degree of dislike, they can’t help feeling drawn to one another by the very fact that they are so dissimilar; they’re attracted by each other’s exoticism. Heck, I would’ve felt the same way if I were in their shoes. Ash is mysterious and sexy (I’m always a sucker for the bad boys) and Natalie possesses tremendous courage and strength of spirit. She starts off a bit spoiled and naïve but experiences a great deal of growth throughout the novel, making it easy to see why Ash falls for her.

Romance isn’t the only appealing part of Dark City.  As I mentioned earlier, there are many parallels between the treatment of the Darklings and the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as of blacks during the U.S. civil rights movement. This initially struck me as a risky move on Richards’ part, and I’m still not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the idea of comparing the situation of blood-sucking fantasy creatures with the very real, very horrific plight of real people throughout history. Still, the themes of prejudice, segregation, and injustice do make Richards’ story more thought-provoking and add a degree of depth to the novel.

Darklings are treated as second-class citizens at best and animals at worst.  Many have been relocated to concentration camps in the wilderness, and those who are fortunate enough to escape the relocation are forced to live in squalid ghettos with inadequate food supplies and few rights. The only Darklings living outside of the ghettos and concentration camps are those who work as servants to human families, and in order to do so they must wear identification bracelets and undergo the surgical removal of their fangs.

The Darklings’ culture and physiology is even more interesting than their political situation. Authors of vampire fiction are often quite creative when deciding which attributes to bestow upon their bloodsuckers, and Richards is no exception. Soul sharing, blood mating, and production of a drug-like venom are just a few of the interesting traits that Darklings possess, and reading about these things makes for a very cool experience.

All in all, Black City captured my attention and didn’t let it go. For that reason, I recommend giving this book a try, flaws and all.