Beneath the Haunting Sea
by Joanna Ruth Meyer
400pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 4.8/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.11/5
 

Beneath the Haunting Sea, Joanna Ruth Meyer’s young adult fantasy debut novel, is a tale about fate, love, courage, selflessness, and determination built upon forgotten history, myths, and family secrets. It’s a lovely story—even a book I found rather difficult to put down during the second half—but there are some issues with its execution despite being enjoyable overall.

Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Talia learns that the dying Emperor is her biological father and that he intends to announce that she is his official heir at her coming of age party. However, he does not appear during this occasion, and the celebration is instead interrupted by a young woman long rumored to be the Empress’ daughter herself, bearing the news that the Emperor has passed away. She claims that he declared her to be the new Empress before his death, accuses Talia and her mother of plotting to take the throne, and punishes the two alleged traitors with banishment to a distant island.

During the months-long sea voyage, Talia’s mother becomes strangely obsessed with the ocean, insisting that she can hear the waves singing and that she must keep watch because of an angry sea goddess. Talia dismisses her mother’s ravings—and the story she tells her supposedly explaining them—as nonsense, having long ago ceased to believe in the old myths. However, she finds she can’t escape these legends even after she’s brought to a Baron’s home on the island, which is said to be a significant site from these ancient tales. As she tries to discover why the Baron fears the sea, how his trepidation relates to the deaths of the two former Baronesses, and what’s hidden away in the mysterious locked library, Talia also discovers her own connection to the ocean—and that her destiny may be far larger and more important than being Empress of half the world…

Beneath the Haunting Sea is a wonderful story with some drawbacks that hold it back from being a wonderful novel. Although I did race through the second half of the book wanting to know what happened next, it did take around 150 pages to become at all immersive, largely because pacing earlier in the book is extremely uneven. The first 2–3 chapters are a whirlwind: Talia discovers she’s to be the next Empress, and then she’s overthrown and banished before she can even take the throne. After that, it seems to drag for quite awhile, and the sea voyage seems long even though it does skip over much of the mundanity of the half-year spent traveling to focus on the most relevant parts. At this point, not enough information about the world’s mythology has been revealed, and it lacks a tantalizing hook to inspire speculation and more than vague curiosity about Talia’s mother’s agitated state.

After Talia arrives at her destination and begins trying to unravel the mysteries and secrets of the Baron’s house, it becomes much more engaging. The household includes the Baron and his two sons, who are complete opposites, and there are some rules and family tensions that Talia does not yet understand as a newcomer. The elder of the two young men, Caiden, is at odds with his brother, Wen, a composer who turned down the opportunity of a lifetime because of a vision from the gods—to the dismay and puzzlement of the rest of his family. Furthermore, Talia hears whispers about the house being cursed and the deaths of both Baronesses, but no one seems eager to share details with her.

There is a love triangle involving Talia, Caiden, and Wen, and I actually thought this was one of the better aspects of the book. Though it at first seemed to be a way to add drama (and did, of course, add drama), it also showed a lot about each character and their personality. I don’t want to give away too much about how it unfolded, but I thought Talia’s feelings made perfect sense and her reactions along the way demonstrated who she was. The resolution is satisfying, and it does end up being a sweet love story.

Other than Talia, I didn’t feel that any of the characters were especially fleshed out, but I did find her to be well characterized. She’s curious, stubborn, rebellious, and courageous, and she’s also a heroine who grows, changes, and learns from her mistakes. In particular, she struggles with her beliefs about the gods and fate, which changed when her father (not the Emperor but the man who raised her) died.

Though the world mythology was compelling, I thought that the introduction and integration of these elements were among the weaker aspects of the novel. As I mentioned earlier, the old stories (and Talia’s disdain for them) were first referenced without adding much spark to them, and the foundation of the world was told via a flashback of Talia’s mother relating a rather generic legend to her as a child. As these tales progressed, they did become less standard and took on more of a life of their own; however, they continued to be conveyed through chunks of text via flashbacks or Talia’s reading rather than being seamlessly woven into the novel. Like the rest of the book, the prose is polished and readable (even if it didn’t stand out to me as particularly beautiful or unique), but I found this to be a dull way of discovering the universe. That said, the mythical parts of the novel that took place in the present are more vivid and interesting, although I did feel the climax was rushed, especially when compared to earlier in the novel.

Beneath the Haunting Sea is a wonderful story, and it’s also a complete story with a solid ending. Personally, I felt the romance and the mysterious atmosphere surrounding the house by the shore worked better than the fantasy part, which takes some time to develop into more than a bland tale surrounding uninspired gods and goddesses. Regardless, it does hit its stride and improve later, and I am glad I read it even if it’s not quite strong enough to be a memorable book I expect to revisit in the future.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from a publicist.

Read an Excerpt from Chapter 9

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

There was only one new book arrival last week, but it’s one I’m particularly excited to read since it appeared on my anticipated 2018 speculative fiction releases list.

In case you missed it last week, I reviewed the fourth book in Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, The Lost Plot. Like the previous books in this series, I found it delightful. (If you’re new to the series, this review shouldn’t include spoilers from previous books other than mentioning a character’s true identity revealed partway through the first book, probably around the first third to half of the book. The end of the review also has links to reviews of the previous books in the series if you would prefer not to know this and start with a review of the first book.)

Without further ado, here’s the latest addition to the piles of books…

If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

If Tomorrow Comes (Yesterday’s Kin #2) by Nancy Kress

If Tomorrow Comes, the middle book in a science fiction trilogy based on Nancy Kress’ Nebula Award–winning novella Yesterday’s Kin, will be released on March 6 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

I loved Yesterday’s Kin (my review), and though I didn’t think the full length novel was quite as strong as the original novella, I also enjoyed Tomorrow’s Kin immensely (my review).

Tor.com has excerpts from both Yesterday’s Kin novels:

  1. Tomorrow’s Kin (does contain spoilers if you have not read Yesterday’s Kin, which is approximately the first third of the novel)
  2. If Tomorrow Comes
 

Nancy Kress returns with If Tomorrow Comes, the sequel of Tomorrow’s Kin, part of an all-new hard science fiction trilogy based on a Nebula Award-winning novella

Ten years after the Aliens left Earth, humanity succeeds in building a ship, Friendship, to follow them home to Kindred. Aboard are a crew of scientists, diplomats, and a squad of Rangers to protect them. But when the Friendship arrives, they find nothing they expected. No interplanetary culture, no industrial base―and no cure for the spore disease.

A timeslip in the apparently instantaneous travel between worlds has occurred and far more than ten years have passed.

Once again scientists find themselves in a race against time to save humanity and their kind from a deadly virus while a clock of a different sort runs down on a military solution no less deadly to all. Amid devastation and plague come stories of heroism and sacrifice and of genetic destiny and free choice, with its implicit promise of conscious change.

 

The Lost Plot is the fourth book in Genevieve Cogman’s delightful Invisible Library series, which follows the adventures of Librarian Irene Winters whose job involves traveling to various alternate worlds collecting books for an organization existing outside of time and space—and often requires plenty of deception and quick thinking on her part. Fortunately, Irene is competent and sharp-witted enough to consistently rise to the occasion even in the most ludicrous situations, and her practical-yet-amusing observations of the world and these frequent absurd predicaments is part of what makes these novels so much fun. The Lost Plot is every bit as entertaining as I’ve come to expect from this series, and I especially enjoyed its focus on the difficulty of impartiality—and on dragons!

With the work it does to maintain balance throughout the worlds, it’s important that the Library remains a neutral entity—which is why Irene is rather disturbed when she’s approached by a dragon hoping to enlist her aid in a political contest. A dragon queen has given two of her junior servants the opportunity to compete for the position of Minister by completing a series of tasks, one of which is procuring an original copy of Journey to the West found in a specific alternate world. Though the two candidates were explicitly forbidden from seeking the help of a Librarian, this dragon learned that her rival broke the rule and believes it’s only fair that she do the same under the circumstances.

Irene refuses to assist the dragon in her quest and informs her supervisor at the Library of the situation. Since she has proven to be rather effective at acting appropriately on her own, it’s decided that Irene should be the one to travel to 1920s-era America to find the Librarian who threatens their organization’s hard-won reputation for neutrality. However, the Library as a whole is greater than any one individual—and it’s made clear to her that if it becomes politically expedient to lay blame on a rogue agent, she could become a scapegoat…

If you’ve been following this site for a little while, this probably isn’t the first time you’ve seen the Invisible Library series mentioned: not only have I reviewed each installment, but each book has also appeared on my last three year-end favorites lists. Like its predecessors, The Lost Plot is incredibly engaging, and I think that readers who enjoyed the previous books will most likely find this latest novel worthwhile as well. Personally, I actually found it to be slightly better than the last one since it was less meandering (and more dragon-focused!).

Most of The Lost Plot takes place in an alternate version of America, mainly New York City after a brief stint in Boston, similar to the 1920s during the Prohibition. Irene and her apprentice, Kai, find themselves contending with cops and mobsters—plus a Fae sharpshooter serving as a mob boss’s right-hand woman, and of course, dragons! As usual, Irene has to overcome a variety of obstacles using her wits and a Librarian’s primary weapon, the Language, which can alter reality when used precisely. Irene not only excels at evaluating new situations and adjusting quickly but she also has fun with many of the challenges she faces: when she decides that she can use being mistaken for an infamous British mob boss to her advantage, she finds she rather enjoys playing this role. I love that she’s competent and adventurous but also self-aware enough to realize that her insatiable curiosity could be her downfall and that she can sometimes be more calculating than kind (which she doesn’t particularly like, but she has no delusions about it being a part of her).

The central theme of the novel is neutrality as Irene and her closest allies grapple with the complications that come with the expectation of being completely unbiased. Since this investigation involves dragons, Irene working with Kai—a dragon prince—can present some problems for both of them, and Irene sees firsthand how having close ties can compromise one whose duty relies on being impartial.

The Lost Plot is a diverting read with a wonderful setting that is less disjointed and more focused than the preceding volume in the Invisible Library series. The one thing I would have preferred was for it to be less of a standalone since it did not follow up on the revelations from the last book other than briefly acknowledging them, but at the same time, it’s not what I’d call a “filler book” since the end does have potential ramifications for future installments. However, it is another absorbing, compulsively readable adventure—and I can hardly wait to find out what trouble follows Irene in the next book!

My Rating: 8.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Lost Plot (link below the cover image)

Reviews of Previous Books in The Invisible Library Series:

  1. The Invisible Library
  2. The Masked City
  3. The Burning Page

 

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week brought some books in the mail, plus I visited a bookstore yesterday and it’s not possible to visit a bookstore and come away empty handed! I didn’t end up having enough spare time available last week to finish a review, so here are the latest arrivals.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1) by S. A. Chakraborty

I’ve been wanting to read The City of Brass ever since I first heard about it so I had to buy it when I found it in the bookstore!

Tor.com has an excerpt from The City of Brass.

 

Step into The City of Brass, the spellbinding debut from S. A. Chakraborty, an imaginative alchemy of The Golem and the Jinni, The Grace of Kings, and Uprooted, in which the future of a magical Middle Eastern kingdom rests in the hands of a clever and defiant young con artist with miraculous healing gifts.

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trades she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, and a mysterious gift for healing—are all tricks, both the means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.

But when Nahri accidentally summons Dara, an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior, to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to reconsider her beliefs. For Dara tells Nahri an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire and rivers where the mythical marid sleep, past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises and mountains where the circling birds of prey are more than what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In Daevabad, within gilded brass walls laced with enchantments and behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments run deep. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, her arrival threatens to ignite a war that has been simmering for centuries.

Spurning Dara’s warning of the treachery surrounding her, she embarks on a hesitant friendship with Alizayd, an idealistic prince who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime. All too soon, Nahri learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for . . .

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler

I very rarely buy/read short story collections, but if it’s written by Octavia E. Butler, it’s a must read. This was actually the first time I’d come across a copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories in a bookstore, and I couldn’t resist purchasing it.

 

A perfect introduction for new readers and a must-have for avid fans, this New York Times Notable Book includes “Bloodchild,” winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and “Speech Sounds,” winner of the Hugo Award. Appearing in print for the first time, “Amnesty” is a story of a woman named Noah who works to negotiate the tense and co-dependent relationship between humans and a species of invaders. Also new to this collection is “The Book of Martha” which asks: What would you do if God granted you the ability—and responsibility—to save humanity from itself?

Like all of Octavia Butler’s best writing, these works of the imagination are parables of the contemporary world. She proves constant in her vigil, an unblinking pessimist hoping to be proven wrong, and one of contemporary literature’s strongest voices.

The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum

The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum

The Coincidence Makers, which will be the first book by Israeli bestselling author Yoav Blum to be published in the US, will be released on March 6 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Coincidence Makers.

 

In this genre-bending novel, there is no such thing as chance and every action is carefully executed by highly trained agents. You’ll never look at coincidences the same way again.

What if the drink you just spilled, the train you just missed, or the lottery ticket you just found was not just a random occurrence? What if it’s all part of a bigger plan? What if there’s no such thing as a chance encounter? What if there are people we don’t know determining our destiny? And what if they are even planning the fate of the world?

Enter the Coincidence Makers―Guy, Emily, and Eric―three seemingly ordinary people who work for a secret organization devoted to creating and carrying out coincidences. What the rest of the world sees as random occurrences, are, in fact, carefully orchestrated events designed to spark significant changes in the lives of their targets―scientists on the brink of breakthroughs, struggling artists starved for inspiration, loves to be, or just plain people like you and me…

When an assignment of the highest level is slipped under Guy’s door one night, he knows it will be the most difficult and dangerous coincidence he’s ever had to fulfill. But not even a coincidence maker can see how this assignment is about to change all their lives and teach them the true nature of fate, free will, and the real meaning of love.

Part thriller, part mystery, part love story―Kirkus calls Yoav Blum’s The Coincidence Makers “a smart, unpredictable, and heartfelt adventure story.”

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu’s next book, a historical horror novel, will be released on March 6 (hardcover, ebook).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Hunger.

 

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the isolated travelers to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They cannot seem to escape tragedy…or the feelings that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it’s a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner (who some think might be a witch), their ill-advised choice of route through uncharted terrain, or just plain bad luck, the ninety men, women, and children of the Donner Party are heading into one of one of the deadliest and most disastrous Western adventures in American history.

As members of the group begin to disappear, the survivors start to wonder if there really is something disturbing, and hungry, waiting for them in the mountains…and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.

Effortlessly combining the supernatural and the historical, The Hunger is an eerie, thrilling look at the volatility of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.

Additional Books:

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week was a terrific week for books in the mail since both of these new arrivals appeared on my anticipated speculative fiction releases of 2018 list.

Also last week, I posted a review of The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco. I loved Tea, the main character, and how Rin Chupeco told her story through two different perspectives and timelines—showing just how much can change in five years and adding fascinating dimension to Tea’s character.

And now, on to the latest books!

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire #2) by Melissa Caruso

The second book in the Swords and Fire trilogy will be released on April 24 (trade paperback, ebook).

This will also be Melissa Caruso’s second published novel, and I’m very excited about it since The Tethered Mage is an exciting, compulsively readable book that kept me up reading until 2:00 AM. I loved the world and characters, and The Tethered Mage was one of my favorite books of 2017.

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Tethered Mage. And if you missed it, Melissa Caruso recently wrote an excellent Twitter thread on fighting in ballgowns (with Disney princess examples!).

 

Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a course of action.

Lady Amalia Cornaro knows that this Conclave might be her only chance to smother the growing flames of war, and she is ready to make any sacrifice if it means saving Raverra from destruction.

Amalia and Zaira must go behind enemy lines, using every ounce of wit and cunning they have, to sway Vaskandar from war. Or else it will all come down to swords and fire.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies (The Poison Wars #1) by Sam Hawke

This epic fantasy debut novel will be released on July 3 (hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

Editor Diana Gill wrote a Behind the Bookshelf essay on the Tor-Forge blog in which she discusses what makes a book stand out from the rest using City of Lies as an example—and it sounds fantastic!

 

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me… 

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising…and angry.

Rin Chupeco’s novel The Bone Witch, the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy, is the story of a powerful necromancer named Tea who was told her destiny was not to save the world but to change it—for better and for worse. Tea herself is introduced through the viewpoint of a bard, who finds her in exile about five years after she first discovered her magic, and his perspective alternates with hers as she relates her tale to him. As much as I enjoyed her narrative, the lovely writing, and exploring the world, it’s this storytelling structure and the dimension it adds to Tea’s characterization that truly make The Bone Witch a standout novel: at seventeen years old, she seems hardened compared to her younger self, yet it seems as though she has the same core personality traits and her values have simply shifted with her experiences.

The first glimpse of Tea seen through the eyes of the bard is a young woman effortlessly exerting control over one of the giant undead daevas capable of wreaking havoc throughout the world. She appears confident and mighty, and the scars she bears and the look in her eyes show she’s been through a lot, especially considering her age. After this brief scene showing the bard’s first impressions of Tea and a conversation in which she agrees to tell her tale, she begins her story. As a young girl, she never seemed particularly extraordinary and neither she nor anyone else realized she had power over the Dark—until the day twelve-year-old Tea unwittingly resurrected her older brother during his funeral.

Her first bout with necromancy left her rather drained, but fortunately, she was aided in her recovery by a woman named Mykaela, an experienced bone witch who became her mentor. Mykaela whisked Tea away from her quiet country life, along with her undead brother, and Tea began the journey to becoming an asha, a politically savvy woman who knows how to wield her magic, fight, use fashion to her advantage, and entertain through various arts such as dancing and music. However, she has a bigger challenge ahead of her than most asha due to being a rare bone witch, who are feared and hated by many.

Through her interactions with the bard, it’s revealed that much has changed since Tea first learned of her abilities. It’s fascinating to see just how different she is while simultaneously seeing how her nature combined with her background could have led to these changes. I loved that though Tea initially has a little bit of hesitation about being a bone witch, she’s quickly forced to admit to herself that she liked the taste of power—and that she continues to be self aware as she embraces her power and learns what she can about it, whether others would approve of her methods or not. Though she’s ultimately much harder and less merciful, she also still seems to be motivated by the same sense of justice exhibited by her younger self, and as her tale advances it demonstrates her increasing bitterness about the treatment of bone witches and the rigidity of asha traditions. Knowing where Tea ends up makes this novel far stronger than if it followed a linear path, and it also creates some suspense as it gradually fills in details about what happened in the past—as well as what exactly Tea has been planning while in exile, since that story is not yet finished, either.

Although the main protagonist and her characterization were my favorite parts, the lovely writing was another strength, especially in the bard’s more poetic sections. His perspective can be a bit melodramatic, but I found it quite readable and enjoyed how it often tied into the next part of Tea’s narration.

The world was also captivating, but I did feel that this is where the book faltered the most. It simultaneously provided lots of information about magic and history while not explaining enough, and it also seemed as though some elements were added because they were interesting or created tension rather than because they made sense in-world. For instance, everyone—from kings to common people—wears a heartsglass around their neck that shows their essence. To most, this just gives a general idea of who they are, but those with magic can learn to understand the subtle changes that most do not see. Though this can be useful in some situations, such as determining why someone is ill and how to cure them, it can also make people rather vulnerable when they interact with someone who can read what they’re truly feeling or exchange heartsglasses with a spouse. Perhaps I’ll feel differently once the trilogy has been finished, but right now, it seems as though the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits, making it hard to believe people would follow this system even though I rather like the general concept. Additionally, parts of the mythology could have been fleshed out a bit more, such as the Faceless and their operations. It would have improved one of the subplots to have a better idea of their place in the world and their goals beyond Being Evil.

Despite any quibbles, I loved The Bone Witch mainly because of its heroine and the storytelling structure that enhanced her characterization. The way it skillfully built up both parts of Tea’s story was mesmerizing, and I can hardly wait to continue both threads of her tale in The Heart Forger (coming March 20).

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Witch

Read Rin Chupeco’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Heroines (including Tea!)