I was super excited for this book. Pirates, magical land ships, an f/f romance – it all sounded like it was going to be very much my cup of tea. But unfortunately, I really struggled to click with something about The Forever Sea, and I ended up coming out thinking it was just… okay.
Book: The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson
Read before: No
Release date: 26th January 2021
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge by DAW Books via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: secondary character death; minor violence; discussions of suicide; depictions of burns.
On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother—The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper—has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.
But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.
To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.
Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything—ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun—to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.
This book sounds fantastic – the idea is so clever, to freshen up nautical fantasy by flipping the setting on its head. I loved the thought of a young woman uncovering the secrets of this fascinating sea, and I had dreams of it being an intense, action-packed and intrigue-filled read. Unfortunately, this book tipped me into a two-week reading slump. Sometimes it just happens and you don’t know why, but in this instance it was clear to me that spending a week feeling like I had to read The Forever Sea made me reluctant to pick up my Kindle, and that habit seems to have stuck. There were enough tidbits to keep me teased and turning pages, but it did, at times, feel like wading through treacle. First books in series often have a lot of set-up to do, but they do need to have some payoff in them, and for me, this just never got to a satisfying point.
The cover is astonishingly beautiful (this is the US version, because that’s the ARC I had), and really sets the tone for the book’s major setting – lush, incredibly detailed grassland as far as the eye can see. It’s a really good match to the descriptions in the book – but unfortunately, I know that because these descriptions were everywhere, and they were long. Very often the book stopped doing anything for several pages so that Kindred could look out over the sea and describe grass to us. It paints a wonderfully detailed picture, yes, but after a while it really started to grate on me! I think it was intended to provoke awe and fear at the vastness of the sea, as much of the force behind the plot derives from Kindred’s desire to know what is beneath the surface, and I think that even despite the lengthy descriptions, this could have worked were it not for the framing device. The book opens with (and returns to every so often) a view of life below the surface, with a mysterious storyteller travelling between tribes, telling Kindred’s story to a few survivors who remember nothing of their past. The implication is that this is a glimpse into the future of the world, devastated after the events of the main story, but for me it was just frustrating, as it made Kindred’s life and the world of the sea feel completely pointless. What should have offered a nice layer of dramatic irony, making us wonder what occurred between the main timeline and this one, instead just took all the suspense out of the plot for me.
While I thought the structure and pacing were flawed, I was willing to persevere and hope that the other aspects of the story would carry me through. However, I struggled to connect to almost all the characters, but most of all to Kindred. Most of the crew of The Errant seemed to be very one-dimensional, each with their defining feature (the young nervous one, the fighty one, the horrible one) but not much going on behind that. We were constantly told that they were a family, with all the closeness and rivalries within that, but making Kindred feel like an outsider to them had the disappointing side-effect of making us, the reader, distanced from them as well. That could have worked if I was rooting for Kindred, but she consistently made naive, selfish decisions without thought for the consequences, and I ended up really disliking her. None of the women we meet (well over 80% of the cast!) seem to have any actual interiority, or anything that made me think of them as people rather than caricatures – and if I were being uncharitable, I could possibly say that this is a difficulty of a male author writing a largely female cast, as it’s notable that one of the only characters I found to have much nuance going on was Seraph, an older man.
I’m finding it hard to articulate exactly what didn’t work for me in this one – while I can identify some flaws in the structure or characters, there’s something else that just felt wrong about it. There are some glimpses of brilliance here and I was convinced something was coming that would make it all feel worthwhile, but there was no payoff on any of the plotlines for me. I understand the need to leave threads dangling for the rest of the series, but I feel like I just read 464 pages only to end up in the exact same place as I started. It just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be – is it an eco-dystopia, or a coming-of-age story, or a pirate romp, or a classic fantasy? It’s a stunning world, with lots of clever ideas, but the many different focuses don’t hang together well enough to make a cohesive whole, and Kindred isn’t a strong enough lead to have dragged me through without noticing the bumps. It’s a clever concept that, in my opinion, suffers from bad pacing, bloat, and having the breath knocked out of it at key points, and I’m afraid it’s unlikely I’ll be coming back for book two. Some of my friends have loved it, and really enjoyed the slower, more thoughtful pace (so please do seek out more reviews if the concept tempts you!), but for me, this gets only two and a half out of five cats.