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Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Author:  A.M. (Alyx) Dellamonica 
Plot Type: Alternate World Fantasy 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—3 
Publisher:  Tor 
     Novel 1: Child of a Hidden Sea (6/2014)
     Novel 2: A Daughter of No Nation (12/2015)
     Novel 3: The Nature of a Pirate (12/2016)

Dellamonica has also published three prequel stories set much earlier in this world in a series she calls THE GALES. The protagonist of those stories is Gale Feliachild, aunt of the heroine of HIDDEN SEA TALES:
    "Among the Silvering Herd" (free on-line or e-story)
    "The Ugly woman of Castello di Putti" (free on-line or e-story)
    "The Glass Galago" (e-story)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 1/7/2017 to include my review of The Nature of a Pirate, the third novel in this trilogy. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.

                       NOVEL 3:  The Nature of a Pirate                    
     Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.

     When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature―a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell―causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?

     The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanna, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again

      As the story opens, Sophie has received official approval to set up her Forensic Institute, so now she needs to begin assembling the necessary equipment, personnel, and―most important―scientific knowledge that she will need to make the Institute a success. She is excited about this new project because her new job is the perfect cover for her habit of constantly asking questions―a character trait that is frowned on in Stormwrack culture. At one point a government official scolds Sophie about her most grievous cultural flaw―curiosity: "As far as I can tell, you can find a reason to want access to every piece of information, true or false, ever recorded."

     The novel's plot has several prongs, all involving Sophie in some type of danger, both physical and emotional. Here are the primary story lines:
> Can Sophie and her brother Bram prove to Stormwrack officials that her new Forensic Institute has value and should be fully funded? This entails the transport of specialized scientific equipment and huge quantities of textbook information from Earth to Stormwrack so that Sophie can train her new Forensic assistants in the science of fingerprinting and crime scene analysis.
> Can Sophie and Bram figure out a way to prove exactly what Stormwrack's relationship is to Earth? Is Stormwrack a parallel realm? Or is Stormwrack the result of some type of cataclysmic occurrence on Earth that stripped it of its technological and scientific advances (as well as most of its land masses)?
> Can Sophie make peace with the fact that her biological mother (Beatrice) loaded her up with magical intents before she gave her up for adoption? At her lowest point, Sophie complains to Bram, "I'm barely a real person. I'm a made thing. A windup doll... I'm the image of what Beatrice wanted. A designer baby." (Mostly, she's afraid that Garland wouldn't have fallen for her if she didn't have the beauty, intelligence, and luck that come from Beatrice's intents.) But have faith in our intrepid heroine, who has a history of overcoming challenges and coming out on top.
> Who was the Stormwracker who traveled to Earth (Erstwhile) back in book one and brought back the weapons that killed Sophie's aunt, Gale Feliachild? Who was behind the planning of that murder, and why?
> Who is trying to destroy the Fleet of Nations by using forbidden magic to sink one ship after another? And why?
> How can Sophie extricate herself from a situation into which her father, Cly, has maneuvered her: namely, that she now owns a slave and doesn't know how to free him without exposing him to future harm, or even death? In a related story thread, is there any truth to the Stormwrack myth about a distant island that is populated by escaped slaves?
> What is going to happen next in Sophie's complicated relationship with her (apparent) soul mate, Captain Garland Parrish?
    Each plot line twists and turns its way through the book, occasionally brushing up against one another and sometimes weaving together. Dellamonica once again has created a tightly knit plot that careens along at a dizzying pace, carrying us deeper and deeper into the many-layered political intrigues of Stormwrack. Each story line has its own cast of characters, and you really can't trust any of them based on what they say and how they behave. Dellamonica keeps you guessing all the way to the end as to the identities of the bad guys and gals. Even though I found some to be more obvious than others, I wasn't able to figure out why some of them had turned to the dark side.

     Sophie spends some time (separately) with her parents, Beatrice and Cly, and she gets to know both of them better, thus enriching the story of her birth and her familial history. Watching Sophie and Cly play a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship throughout the novel is one of the high points. Sophie also comes to an understanding with her adoptive parents in San Franciscoa sad scene because she knows that her destiny now lies in Stormwrack, not on Earth. And now to the romance: Sophie and Garland are together throughout much of the novel, mostly on board his ship, and their relationship swerves all over the place. Garland consistently maintains his polite, conservative, monosyllabic demeanor, while Sophie seethes with sexual desire for his manly charms. Will Garland ever break down and make a move, or will Sophie have to take the first step?

     Since this series has been marketed as a trilogy, this must be the final novel, but Dellamonica does not completely resolve all of the issues, thus leaving a lot of room for further adventures for Sophie and her friends. I have enjoyed reading all three novels and immersing myself in the Stormwrack world. Dellamonica is a terrific story teller, and she has created a fresh and exciting mythology with wonderfully well-developed characters who are all originalsnot stereotypes. Even the villains are complexdefinitely not the one-note bad guys that seem to be the norm in fantasy fiction these days. The best thing about the series is Sophiea confident, courageous, intelligent heroine who is not afraid to stand up and face the dangers and disappointments in her life. I'm not saying that she never asks for help on her many and varied projects and problems, but I am saying that she doesn't allow any big, well-muscled men to fight her battles for her. Sophie is a woman with a mind of her own, and she's not shy about letting everyone know where she stands on any (every) issue, even when she is forced to suffer some negative consequences. On of the funniest examples of Sophie's outspokenness comes when she interrupts a class on "the basics of physical intimacy" being held for soon-to-be-wed citizens of Sylvanna, her father's country. After explaining to the instructor that "I don't need a bunch of half-baked information on sex. I've had sex," the instructor accuses her of lewdness and kicks her out of the class.

     If you are looking for an engaging fantasy series that breaks new ground, you can't do any better than HIDDEN SEA TALESClick HERE to go to the novel's page where you can click on the cover art to read an excerpt. 

     The series is set in Stormwrack, an alternate realm that is parallel to Earth. The two realms share many of the same physical characteristics e.g., moon and stars, geological structure, salty seas) but also have many differences (e.g., languages, time measurement, plant and animal species, absence of large land masses). Entry to the Stormwrack portal involves the use of a special time piece and a ritual completed at a specific time of day. 

     Stormwrack is a world of island nations, each with its own dialectal take on the main Stormwrack language. Although each island nation has its own governing body, the primary government for the entirety of Stormwrack is the Convene, which comprises representatives from each nation. The inhabitants of Stormwrack are human, but magic can be used to mutate the human form, so we do see a few monstrous creations.

    Law enforcement and defense are handled mostly by the Fleet, a huge flotilla of ships representing all of the island nations. The captain of the Fleet's lead shipTemperancehas access to a powerful magical object that allows him to sink another ship just by speaking its name. Names have great power in Stormwrack. 

     Stormwrack has been without war for 109 years, ever since the signing of the Cessation agreement, which settled a war between the Isle of Golda pirate nationand the rest of Stormwrack. Because the Cessation ended all warfare, the only way to settle disputes in Stormwrack is through litigation or dueling. When the series heroine complains, "Loopholes and paperwork…You guys seem to have an excess of legal maneuvering and a shortage of common sense," a Stormwracker responds, "It's…the price of the peace…Bureaucratic warfare. Less bloody than the real thing." If someone does something to you that you object to, you can either sue him or her, or you can elect to settle the dispute through a duel. The duels are handled by the Duelist-Adjudicator, who sails around on a ship fitted with fighting decks and manned by lawyers who excel at dueling sports like wrestling and swordplay.

     Magic is an everyday occurrence in Stormwrack and is called "intent." On a large scale, for example, a huge active volcano is completely safe because of a magical inscription with the intent that it be dormant. On a smaller scale, people with enough money can pay for a beautification intent that works like plastic surgery without the slice-and-dice. One character's sea-captain father "had his teeth scripped to shine as the sun. The intention survived his death," so his daughter uses his skull as a lantern. On the dark side, if someone knows your complete name (first, middle, last), they can kill you from afar. As the series heroine says, "You sink a ship by saying its name, and you ensorcel someone by writing their name. Names mean a lot here."

    Stormwrack has no modern technologyno electricity, engines, or computersso it feels as if it exists in the 17th or 18th century during the Age of Sail. The shipboard scenes are terrific, with much attention paid to sensory details: the creak of the boards, the smells from the galley, the sting of the salt spray, the rush of the wind, the rolling and slapping of the waves, and the cries of the seabirds.

                      NOVEL 1:  Child of a Hidden Sea                      
     Don't be put off by the cover art; this is not a YA novel. Sophie Opal Hansa is 24 years oldthe adopted daughter in a family that values intelligence, curiosity, and excellence. She is a marine videographer and has traveled the world, often living and working in harsh environments. Her gay brother, Bramwell (Bram), is a technological genius who can master just about any intellectual task in record time. Sophie has always felt like the black sheep of the family. She has the curiosity, but she lacks the follow through. Here, she succumbs to her usual jitters: "The old sense that her idea would fall apart when she explained it, that they'd poke holes in her theory and tell her she'd been silly, guilty of shallow thinking, of not really examining her hypothesis." Another time she babbles: "Don't you think it's possibleI mean, maybe I'm wrong, oh, I guess perhaps this is stupid." She flusters like this again and againshowing absolutely no confidence in her own intelligence. Sophie is most happy when she is investigating and least happy when she is called upon to present the findings of her investigations. 

     As the story opens, Sophie and Bram's parents are away on a lengthy trip, so Sophie searches their office and finds the identity of her biological mother, Beatrice, who happens to live just a few miles away. When Sophie knocks on Beatrice's door and reveals her identity, Beatrice reacts violently, calling Sophie a viper and demanding that she go away and not come back. Shortly after this bitter encounter, Sophie watches Gale Feliachild, her mother's sister, leave Beatrice's house and follows her, hoping that she will provide more information. Almost immediately, two men attack Gale, and Sophie jumps into the fray, slamming her camera bag into one man's face and grabbing hold of Gale. 

     All of a sudden Sophie finds herself flying through the air and landing in the middle of the sea, still holding on to Gale, who is unconscious with a knife in her chest. Soon, they are rescued by people who seem to be living in Medieval times in spindly wooden huts with very little food, clothing made from homespun fabrics, and no access to technology. Even more confusing is the fact that all of the plants and animals (mostly fish) that Sophie sees are completely unfamiliar to her (and she has a vast knowledge of wildlife). One of the most bewildering aspects of this place is that the sea and the beaches contain no trash and garbage; they are completely clean and free of litter. Each time Sophie sees something unfamiliar, she pulls out her camera and takes a photograph, but she is bewildered by almost everything she sees. The people speak a language that Sophie doesn't understand until one mana spell-scripterasks her to write her full name on a slate and then painstakingly carves it into a conch shell. As soon as he completes a brief ritual with the shell, Sophie can magically understand their language. 

     Even though Sophie sees the familiar moon and stars in the sky, she realizes that she is in a different world, and she sets about investigating it with the full force of her scientific curiosity. Within a few days, the Stormwrackers send Sophie back through the portal, where she tries to explain her adventure to Bram. Almost immediately, Sophie's teen-age half-sister, Verena, pounds on her door, furious that Sophie has stolen her heritage. Apparently, Beatrice was supposed to inherit the position and authority of being a courier between Stormwrack and Earth (which the Stormwrackers call "Erstwhile"), but due to mysterious circumstances, she vested her courier post over to Gale. During the rescue, Sophie took possession of Gale's courier pouch, a purse whose zipper opens if Sophie just brushes her finger across it. Inside the purse is Gale's badge of office. Verena claims that Gale meant for her to be the heir to her badge and position and insists that Sophie come back to Stormwrack to straighten out the whole messy situation. Sophie doesn't want to go alone, so she insists that Bram accompany her. 

     From this point on (about a third of the way into the book), Sophie and Bram get dragged into a major political firestorm in Stormwrack, one that finds them right in the middle of the uproar and the danger. In the midst of this main plot, there are also a few more story threads: Sophie's search for her biological father, her attempts to restore Verena's inheritance, and her burgeoning love for Stormwrack (and for a certain shy and handsome sea captain). The adventures play out mostly at seaboth on board and under the water. The twisty plot is complex, but fast paced, particularly the second half, where it accelerates at super-page-turning speeds. By the end, the plot elements include a secret political alliance, a kidnapping, spider web technology, and the theft of a powerful relic. Although the villains' identities are obvious early on, not all of them are one-note evil-doers. 

Besides Sophie, Bram, Beatrice, Gale, and Verena, the cast of supporting characters includes the following:
> Garland Parrish: captain of Gale's ship, the Nightjar, and a possible love interest for Sophie (although Verena has had a major crush on him for years)
> Lais Dariach: a tall, blond, promiscuous, bisexual scientist and inventor (think Fabio with a big brain) who lives in the nation of Tiladene; he and Sophie have a brief fling early in the book and remain friends through the end
> John Coine: one of the villains; a citizen of the pirate nation, Isle of Gold
> Tonio: Parrish's gay first mate, who comes to Sophie's aid more than once 
     Dellamonica does a great job of interweaving her gay and straight characters into the story without overemphasizing their sexual preferences. For the most part, sexual predilection in this world is a private and personal matter that holds little interest for anyone but the citizens of Ualtar, an ultra-conservative religious island whose philosophy bears a strong resemblance to some far-right conservative religions in our own world.

     As in most opening novels, many of the early chapters include expositional material that introduces the mythology of the series. The world-building is terrific. Sophie soon learns that she can't make sweeping generalizations about Stormwrack because in this world there is just as much diversity in religious beliefs, cultural idiosyncrasies, languages, and political philosophies as there is back on Earth. Dellamonica handles the world-building well because she makes her main character a smart and curious young woman and then almost immediately pops her into this strange new worlda world so different that Sophie spends a lot of time just asking questions. And don't forget the magica system in which a spell-scripter inscribes "intents"magical wordson items, or even on people, to imbue them with various magical qualities.

     The author also does a great job with Sophie's first-person narration, always a plus, because writing in the first-person voice can sometimes be awkward. Sophie is such an honest and delightfully inquisitive young woman that her constant investigating comes across as perfectly normal. I must admit, though, that I enjoyed Bram's character more than Sophie's. Bram has a dry sense of humor that livens up every scene in which he appears, always using his genius-level abilities to work out problems in a geeky kind of way and never losing his cool. When things go wrong, he doesn't get hysterical, he merely understates the situation as "sub-optimal." Although I can empathize with Sophie's insecurities, she gets a bit too dithery for my taste, reacting more like an adolescent than a mid-twenties woman. I had to agree with Bram when he told her, "…you like gathering information more than you do presenting results...You can climb a rock face with your fingertips, but you've never been able to deal with having your conclusions questioned…You're afraid of coming up short. Of being told you did it wrong, or you don't belong, or it doesn't count…Try to can the stage fright. Just give them the facts." Many times I wanted to reach in to give Sophie a little shake and tell her to pull herself together and show some backbone. The aspect of Sophie's personality that I did like is her natural curiosity. In fact, her investigations of the unfamiliar flora and fauna of Stormwrack are, at times, more important to Sophie and more interesting to the reader than her inquiry into her aunt's death. The otter scene near the end is particularly engaging.

     I enjoyed this novel very much and am looking forward to its sequel. Dellamonica has plenty of room for story development in this rich world. Sophie isn't finished with her friends and family in Stormwrack, and I'm sure that she's not finished with her enemies there either. Since she has at least two ways that she can get through the portal, I'm sure that we'll see more seaworthy adventures in the next bookand probably some romance. Yes, I'm talking about you, Parrish. 

                      NOVEL 2:  A Daughter of No Nation                      

    As Child of a Hidden Sea drew to a close, Sophie Hansa found herself effectively deported from Stormwrack, the magical world where her birth parents met and, disastrously, married. Sworn to secrecy, she has been biding her time, studying the few relics she was able to bring back to San Francisco from the Fleet of Nations, and preparing in case a chance arises for her to return and investigate the link between our world–which the Wrackers call Erstwhile–and Stormwrack. 

  When Captain Garland Parrish of the sailing vessel Nightjar turns up on her doorstep, it is with a straightforward proposition. Her mother, Beatrice, is caught up in a legal tangle related to Sophie’s birth, and if she returns to Stormwrack and goes on a short sail with her father, the notorious Duelist-Advocate of the Fleet, he will see to it that the red tape is conveniently cleared away. Sophie wants to return, of course, and she wants to know both of her birth parents better. She agrees immediately. 

     But what does Clydon (Cly) Banning really want with his new-found daughter? Is he truly interested in a relationship with his only child, or is there a darker agenda at work? On Stormwrack, even simple issues of marriage, divorce and paternity are bound up in bureaucracy, and the divorce between Cly and Beatrice, citizens of two very different nations, is more an international incident than a domestic matter between two consenting adults. 

     Sophie just wants to study Stormwrack, to learn whether it is a future version of her own world. If it is, she needs to find clues about what destroyed most of Erstwhile’s land mass and raised the level of the oceans, and how magic came to exist in Earth’s far future. But on the sail to her father’s homeland an encounter with bandits, followed by a disturbing revelation about Cly’s home nation, Sylvanna, threatens to alienate father and daughter completely. This complicates Cly’s divorce…and triggers a scandal that could possibly set the port and starboard sides of the Fleet at each other’s throats.

     At this point, having made it through an extended visit to Stormwrack (in book 1), Sophie is torn between her love for her adoptive parents on Earth (aka Erstwhile) and her scientific and cultural curiosity about Stormwrack. She and her brother, Bram, want to know how and when Stormwrack began its existence and why it has such a highly developed system of magic. They are also creating a map that compares the global location of the islands of Stormwrack to the geological features of Earth. Of course, there is another force that pulls Sophie toward Stormwrack: her biological family, especially her half-sister, Verena. And let’s not forget the handsome sea captain, Garland Parrish, to whom Sophie is quite attracted (and vice versa). 

     As the story opens, it has been six months since Sophie’s return home to San Francisco, and she can’t wait to go back to Stormwrack. Her bags are packed and ready when Parrish turns up one day with an offer that will help her biological mother, Beatrice, get out of jail. To review: When Sophie made her first visit to Stormwrack, she caused a lot of trouble for Beatrice, who had kept Sophie’s birth a secret from her estranged husband, Clydon Banning. After giving Sophie away to her adoptive parents on Earth, Beatrice left Cly, married another man, and gave birth to another daughter, Verena. When Cly found out about Sophie, he sued Beatrice for bigamy and other damages, resulting in Beatrice’s imprisonment. Now, Cly has agreed to allow Beatrice to be released on bail if Sophie promises to come with him for a visit to his homeland, Sylvanna. Sophie has been curious about her father, so she agrees to his terms, boards his ship, and sails away to Sylvanna. Sophie’s dreadful Sylvanna relatives (Cly’s cousin and her family) complicate Sophie’s introduction to Sylvanna. They are a greedy lot who want Cly to go back to sea and Sophie to get out of Stormwrack for good. Unfortunately, there is one part of Sylvanna culture that everyone has kept secret from Sophie, and when she learns about it, she is devastated. Based on all of the negative information about Cly that she has gotten from Beatrice’s relatives, Sophie was already wary and distrustful of Clay’s motives, and those feelings escalate when she gets a dose of life in Sylvanna. 

     As Cly and Sophie get to know one another, Cly suggests that Sophie should develop a new branch of study for Stormwrack: forensics. He explains that if she writes a proper handbook, forensics could become “a sanctioned branch of knowledge within the Judiciary.” Not only would this boost Cly’s reputation, but also it would allow Sophie to bypass the restrictions that have been placed on her scientific information gathering by her cousin Annela—a highly positioned bureaucrat. As part of Sophie’s forensics work, Cly wants her to take a look at three cold cases related to Sylvanna and try to solve them using her outlander science techniques. Sophie’s investigations of these cases make up one of the story lines. 

     All the way through the book, Sophie’s scenes with Cly are quite poignant as he tries his best to be a father while Sophie walks a tightrope between her desire to trust him and her fear that he has some dark purpose for wanting her to be a part of his life. In fact, through much of the book, she fears that Cly might be a sociopath, based on his behavior when they capture a pirate ship. Dellamonica does a fine job portraying this shaky father-daughter relationship through the characters’ walking-on-eggs actions and cautious dialogue. 

     I thought that Dellamonica had pretty much completed her world-building in book 1, but in this book she polishes it up and adds a few more bells and whistles. For example, Cly assigns Sophia a memorician, who “was essentially a searchable text archive.” He constantly reads and memorizes and is able to call up any fact that he has read. As Sophie requests more and more scientific information from her memorician, she discovers the unfortunate state of science on Stormwrack—a mishmash of superstition, magical thinking, religious beliefs, common sense, and a smattering of true scientific observations. 

     In a subplot that weaves through the Sophie/Cly/Beatrice plot line, Parrish’s ship, Nightjar, comes across a deserted, wrecked ship soon after Sophie arrives in Stormwrack. They find two survivors: a wily young girl and a gray cat, both of whom play roles in the resolution of the conflicts that surface regarding how the ship was wrecked, who the girl really is, and why she keeps lying to them. In another new bit of Stormwrack mythology, Sophie learns that cats who leave the protection of their homeland must forever after live aboard a ship“No cat who leaves the protection of a seacraft may live.” Citizens of one Stormwrack isle actually worship cats. 

     Once again, Dellamonica creates a fast-paced, well-constructed plot that allows us to look even deeper into the souls of the main characters. By the end of the book, Sophie has become the titular daughter of no nation, having cut her connections with the countries of all of her parents, both biological and adoptive. At one point she muses about Stormwrack: “Neither here nor there, she thought. I don’t belong here, but I can’t just live in the real world now.” 

     As the plot plays out, Sophie feels more and more drawn to Stormwrack and begins to find a place for herself, not on the land, but on Parrish’s Nightjar. This means that she and Verena have to deal with the friction between them regarding Parrish. Verena has been crushing on Parrish for years, and she views Sophie as an interloper who has usurped her position with him. The scenes between Sophie and Verena are entertaining—if tense—as Verena tries to succeed in her new duties as Gale’s replacement, all the while dealing with her jealousy of Sophie’s burgeoning relationship with Parrish. Adding to the drama are some prophecies regarding Gale’s death (in book 1) that involve Parrish and Sophie. Verena’s words and behavior are completely natural at all times. She is a heart-broken teenager trying to succeed at a job in which she is over her head, and Dellamonica beautifully conveys her angst, her fears, and—eventually—her pride at a job well done. 

     The best parts of this book are the scenes in which Sophie manages to gather scientific information and biological samples from Stormwrack’s lands and seas even though everyone is under orders to keep her from doing so. Verena and Parrish are constantly shocked as Sophie keeps succeeding in her Holmesian analyses of situations—keenly observing and analyzing everything she sees and hears and deriving conclusions that she shouldn’t have been able to discern. It’s great to have such an intelligent, likable, and curious heroine who manages to avoid TSTL moments almost entirely. Sophie is much more calm and collected in this book, with none of the dithery moments that she had in the first book. 

     Dellamonica continues to excel in presenting a fresh and inventive mythology with well-developed characters, engrossing story lines, and a fascinating examination of human nature, which doesn’t seem to change, no matter what kind of a world we live in. This book is even better than the first one, and I am definitely looking forward to the next episode in Sophie’s Stormwrack life. 

     Click HERE to go to the novel's page where you can click on the cover art to read all of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2. Click HERE to go to the publisher's web site where you can scroll down a bit to read chapter 3

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