When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen
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Fantasy, 296 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
When The Sea is Rising Red was a little bit of an odd reading experience for me. It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2012, so when I got my hands on it awhile back, I was super excited and maybe holding it to too-high a standard. I think it suffered a little for that, because it couldn't quite live up to my enthusiasm and was a little lackluster as a result. It grew on me but it wasn't as powerful or gripping as I was hoping for. There are times when I thought it was going to be, little moments that shined or things that Hellisen does well that made me almost fall for it, but there was something always holding me back just a bit.
Mostly, I think the thing holding me back was Felicita. As a protagonist, she is hard to like. She's spoiled and self-centered, and even though she does take this huge, admirable leap to take control of her fate and be strong, she's still very much a product of her upbringing throughout. Though I can't really fault her for that (or Hellisen; it is realistic, after all), it does make it hard to root for her. But she does grow considerably, and part of me knows that this was the point of her character, but it still was hard to cheer for her or want to read her story at times. It always made sense that she'd think the way she does, that she'd look down on people and be somewhat narrow-minded, but chances are it will put some readers off - those who are not fans of anti-heroes or aren't patient or willing to wait for things to come around and for her to get with it. But even beyond that, I couldn't help but feel that Felicita was sort of incidental at times, that she wasn't really needed; that she was just the gateway into the story, and that things probably would have happened exactly the same with or without* her. This is not necessarily bad; it can be kind of intriguing, actually. But I didn't get as much out of her as I would have liked, other than that she brought me to these other characters that I loved. But she can be introspective and she is curious, so she does bring things to light and allow us to see this world through her eyes. I was able to forgive her most things because of that.
[*I'm sorry if I just put Bono in your head...]
What made up for Felicita, though, was Pelimburg and the creatures who populated it. The world-building was excellent (for me, at least. I'm sure some will find it confusing and frustrating, but I ate it up.) Pelimburg was genuinely interesting and felt very lively and full. I liked Felicita's exploration of it, and her attempts to let go of "Felicita" and become "Firel" so that she could escape into something else (even though she can never seem to leave Felicita behind). The rest of the characters are fun and I adored a number of them. They made me wish for a longer book because I wanted more pagetime for them; I wanted to get more of their stories, more of their thoughts and actions and how they came to be together (even though the slight mystery, always-has-been-ness of it all really worked). I also really liked the take on magic and folklore, with different cultures, backgrounds and superstitions adding a really nice layer to the story. And it all had a sort of desolate, dreary, hopeless feel to it, which I loved, and which kept me going where Felicita sometimes did not.
Another thing I absolutely did love was the treatment of love - or not so much even that, but attraction. Hellisen avoids a lot of the pitfalls of most YA, portraying attraction and romance in a much more realistic, muddled, confusing way. It's not the stereotypical YA romance, even though there is a love triangle(ish). What love is there, what romance and triangularness and flirtation and confusion, etc., felt more human and authentic in its treatment than you generally find; it's bumbling and cringe-worthy in that really good, awkward, realistic way, and (thankfully) completely ignores the idea of swooning, mushy lovestuff. This alone means that I'll be keeping an eye on what Hellisen does in the future.
But the fact remains, when I finished the last page and closed the book, I didn't feel the need to immediately tell someone about it or push it on anyone. I knew that any pushing I did do would be qualified ("Read this, it's neat, but..."). Again, I think part of this was just because of my own expectations and inexplicable excitement for the book, and that's not really fair of me. And there's part of me that wonders if I may appreciate it more on further readings. There is something there that lingered with me, and there is certainly a part of me that wants more of the world and its cast of characters. So it did sort of worm its way into me, and that's a plus in my book. (I mean, it stuck with me well enough that I'm able to review it and recall things months after reading it, which can be a rarity for me.)
As I said, it was an odd experience. In the end, I do recommend this, but with qualifiers - know yourself as a reader. If you aren't put off by the negatives I've listed, and are intrigued by the rest, definitely pick this up. But if you're easily confused or frustrated with complex, unusual world-building or oft-times frustrating MCs, or you like your romances immediate and swoony, you might want to skip it. As for me, I think I might read it again at some point, when I can come to it with fresh eyes. And I'll certainly be keeping a lookout for what Cat does next, since this was her debut and all; I'm intrigued to see what she'll do next and how she'll grow.