Review: Child of a Hidden Sea

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.

18 thoughts on “Review: Child of a Hidden Sea

  1. Are you reading for pleasure, or some other reason? Because we could do recommendations…. (It just seems very odd to start seeing blog reviews of books, where seemingly the nicest thing you can say about them is ‘has some good parts, shows some promise’.)

  2. >Are you reading for pleasure, or some other reason? Because we could do recommendations…. (It just seems very odd to start seeing blog reviews of books, where seemingly the nicest thing you can say about them is ‘has some good parts, shows some promise’.)

    I used to do this a lot (for fun) in the 1990s, pre-Web. Recently I discovered netgalley.com, which means now I can do pre-publication reviews.

  3. In a still-unpublished story, I have a featherwing orphan adopted by humans who doesn’t know he’s a featherwing until the featherwing coming-of-age (featherwings are awkward enough at puberty even without thinking they’re mere humans before then!!) It has a scene where he has an injury to one of his wings, and he’s explaining the problem to a DVM specializing in avian medicine. Having heard the explanation, the vet asks, “Okay, so where’s your bird?” and poof. Out comes the wings.

    I find the the phrase “strangely limited magic” to be very strange, because magic is no fun without limitations. Even Superman(tm) needs to have his Kryptonite(tm).(citation needed)

  4. I would be curious to hear how you would rate this book relative to the Stross “Family Trade” series that you touched on briefly.

    Frankly, I liked the first book in that series, but felt that after the second book (at the latest) it started going downhill, and I haven’t been back to finish it. I don’t think the world and theme were able to support more than a trilogy at most, and he should have wrapped it up sooner.

  5. >Frankly, I liked the first book in that series, but felt that after the second book (at the latest) it started going downhill, and I haven’t been back to finish it. I don’t think the world and theme were able to support more than a trilogy at most, and he should have wrapped it up sooner.

    I agree. I kept reading after you gave up, because Stross on a bad day is better than most writers on a good day, but it did start to feel forced after a while. My suspicion is that Stross kept the series running longer than it should have to pay bills so he could write more inventive one-offs that might not sell as well.

  6. …and now he’s doing an extended, expanded version with substantial rewriting of previous books, plus more books for the series.

    Charlie’s publisher gave him a contract to do it, and it’s hard to argue against a steady paycheck, but… sometimes, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The entire Family Trade series is basically just one average-sized novel stretched out into an interminable morass of not-much-going-on.

    I can’t see myself slogging though the revised and expanded version….

  7. More chick lit, it seems. Not that I’m complaining, mind you; if Twilight had one good effect, it’s the backlash: halfway decent speculative fiction with a competent heroine to wash out the ill taste left by Airhead!Bella and Creep!Edward. The ur-example is the Hunger Games trilogy, which is even libertarian enough to be used as “armed women smashing the state” fetish fuel. Narratives by and for women that reach much farther than “useless blob finds man of her dreams; he falls instantly for her” are sorely needed, especially in SF and spec-fic which have for decades been mainly male-oriented genres.

  8. @jeff

    Narratives by and for women that reach much farther than “useless blob finds man of her dreams; he falls instantly for her” are sorely needed, especially in SF and spec-fic which have for decades been mainly male-oriented genres.

    /shrug

    My favorite author growing up was Anne McCaffery sharing the top spot with Niven. Somewhere in the top 10 was Mercedes Lackey. I detested Andre Norton. Anti-tech SF annoys me…although I did like Avatar…because mecha and eye candy.

    Never got into CJ Cherryh or Marion Zimmer Bradley because of too many books, too little time.

    Female writers may have been under represented in number but not in quality and perhaps not in terms of impact.

    I wonder what women think of Honor Harrington.

    Off Topic (or off side-topic): I finally got around to reading Out of the Dark by Weber. At the end I was going…Really? That was your ending? 99.99% of the story of humans getting their asses kicked and you solve it THAT way with Deus ex Machina. Really? WTF?

    Thank god I picked that one up at the library.

  9. Nht:

    This woman thinks that Honor Harrington rocks.

    However, I think this is another case of a series going on too long. I am not interested in any more Harrington novels.

    Re Weber, what did you think of the ending of Excalibur Alternative?

  10. Out of the Dark, like the Excalibur Alternative was a expansion of a competent novella into a full blown novel.

    The difference is that The Excalibur Alternative actually got better, while Out of the Dark got significantly worse. The fantasy aspects of OotD were much more prominent in the novella and it lacked the ‘came out of left field’ aspect as the Romanian plotline was by far the primary plotline. This was a result of stuffing the new plot in around the original.

    The Excalibur Alternative simply expanded the story and it became better as a result, turning a good, but ultimately incomplete short story into a good novel

  11. I enjoyed The Excalibur Alternative more than the original but thought the roman short story much tighter. The ending was rushed and could have used a sequel like the Dahak duology. It didn’t take the Roman story any further and ended essentially in the same spot.

    I suspect that Safehold series will do the same and end roughly where Heirs To Empire did…the temple defeated and the rest of the story arc tied up in an epilogue.

    It seems that success often results in less editorial oversight where stories drag on too long or end in a rush when the author suddenly realises they are out of pages/time. Some artists best works are their earliest work with the most oversight and constraints. George Lucas is perhaps the poster child for this.

  12. The Excalibur Alternative simply expanded the story and it became better as a result, turning a good, but ultimately incomplete short story into a good novel

    I agree that Excalibur Alternative was far better than OotD but it left the story in the same spot. The larger human galactic story remains untold.

  13. “I agree that Excalibur Alternative was far better than OotD but it left the story in the same spot. The larger human galactic story remains untold.”

    I agree; I liked Excalibur Alternative much better than Out of the Dark, and in fact have reread the former several times. But I wonder if you could really tell an exciting story in the sequel given that at the end the Avalon Empire had overwhelming technological superiority over the Galactic Federation, plus the advantage of strategic surprise…the outcome is practically foreordained.

    Good dramatic tension requires that the heroes have a reasonable chance of losing.

    Poul Anderson’s classic “High Crusade” is another well-executed story with a similar theme and good dramatic tension.

  14. “I find the the phrase ‘strangely limited magic’ to be very strange, because magic is no fun without limitations. Even Superman(tm) needs to have his Kryptonite(tm).(citation needed)”

    It’s telling that the first comic-book superhero, Superman, was also arguably the most powerful. I think that it took some time before writers and publishers realized that a slightly weaker hero would actually be an improvement, because it would be easier to get him in trouble in a plausible way, and because readers could relate to the weaker character better. Hence Batman, Spider-man, etc.

  15. “George Lucas is perhaps the poster child for this.”

    Good try but no cigar. The Wachowskis.

  16. Good try but no cigar. The Wachowskis.

    One word: Jar-Jar

    One review: Plilnkett 7 part you tube review

  17. “Stross on a bad day is better than most writers on a good day” — maybe I should go back to him. I fell out with him after he kept going on about how much he hates libertarians on his blog, and gave up completely after his misguided Bitcoin rant.

    The point being — how can I buy into a SF world when it is created by someone who is completely at odds with me about how people work (i.e. economics).

    But I used to enjoy his writing; and if you can, I should be able to again. I should not spite myself.

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