The orphan discovering that her birth family hails from another world is an almost hoary fantasy trope – used, for example, in Charles Stross’s Family Trade novels. What matters in deploying it is how original and interesting you can be once you have set up the premise. A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea averts many of the cliches that usually follow, and delivers some value.
Sophie Hansa, a marine videographer in San Francisco, is trying to re-contact her birth family when she sees a woman, apparently her aunt, being attacked by men with daggers. She attempts to intervene and, after an inexplicable explosion of something, finds herself adrift in an alien sea, trying to keep herself and her wounded relative afloat.
Sophie has arrived on Stormwrack, an alternate Earth where variegated island nations dot a vast sea. Her aunt, it develops, is a courier for the Fleet, a peacekeeping force that has successfully suppressed internecine warfare for around a century. Sophie has been caught up in an attempt to neutralize the Fleet and break the long truce.
We are launched into a lively tale of intrigue, derring-do and strangely limited magic. The author has fun busting some genre expectations; Sophie’s video cameras and other imported Earth technology work just fine on Stormwrack, but the locals are uninterested in what they call “mummery” and consider inferior to their enchantments. Sophie is not some angsty teenager who spends a lot of time on denying her situation and blunders into a coming-of-age narrative, she’s a confident young woman who plunges eagerly into exploring Stormwrack’s half-alien ecology and many mysteries.
And mysteries there are aplenty, only beginning with why her birth family seems so dead-set on avoiding her and exiling her from Stormwrack back to our world, which they call ‘Erstwhile’. Who is trying to break the Cessation, and why? Is Stormwrack another world or the far future of Earth? We don’t get answers to everything; the book seems to end setting up for a sequel.
The writing is pretty good and the worldbuilding much better thought out than is usual in most fantasy; Ms. Dellamonica could write competent SF if she chose, I think. The book is slightly marred by the sort of preachiness one expects of a lesbian author these days, and there is a touch of Mary Sue in way the ultra-competent protagonist is written. But the whole is carried off with a pleasing lightness of touch and sense of fun. I’ll read the sequel.