Sea of Ghosts was very much a book of two halves for me. It’s an ambitious book that tries to do something a little different and when it works, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t… well, we’ll come onto that.
I have a real love of fantasy that abandons or subverts the medieval world trope we’ve come to expect from the likes of Tolkien and Martin. Don’t get me wrong, those books definitely have their place but with books like The City & The City and a lot of what Angry Robot is doing right now, people are starting to question the borders between fantasy and science fiction.
Sea of Ghosts has a brilliant set up. The oceans are poisoned and rising. The environment is part of the threat to the protagonists and it makes for a very interesting world where society is forever building upwards. Add dragons, physics and guns and you have a very distinctive and engaging piece of world building.
Cast into this is Granger, an ex-elite soldier who is now hiding from the emperor he insulted. He now runs a prison and into this is thrown someone from his past that upsets the status quo. I didn’t think I would like this plot setup, but it was handled very well and I found myself engaging with Granger’s situation quicker that I thought I would.
For the first half of the book I’m brought deeper and deeper into the story, I go from liking this book to loving it, and then…
…the world breaks. And by that I mean, something that is made out to be such a threat, that I am led to believe is certain death (or a different kind of life), proves not to be. I feel cheated. I go from physically gasping at the end of a chapter to feeling I’ve been duped with a cheesy 1930s cinema serial cliffhanger.
Now I’ve had time to think about this and still it bothers me. Had I misinterpreted the threat? Was this a slight of hand by the author? I’ve thought about this a lot and I still feel cheated.
There’s another example as well, one that isn’t so much of a spoiler. We’re introduced to the concept of Void Flies, a weapon that can eat through cities. Indeed, we see them take out a dragon. We also see them take out a boat. But our hero who is on the boat? He wakes to find a few tiny punctures. Again, I feel cheated.
As a result, the second half, which moves the story and environment on, feels like a completely different book. In other circumstances I would be raving about that, but whereas the first half envokes Bioshock or a good version of Waterworld, the second half feels more like The Golden Compass and as a result it feels a little disjointed. Maybe that’s because, for me at least, I felt less engaged with the novel by this point.
Don’t get me wrong, a book as ambitious as this is always going to get mixed praise, and when it’s on the money, it’s brilliant. The problem is that Campbell seems almost determined to undermine his previous set ups and when he does it’s not some clever twist but a cheap “get out of jail free” card. Even so, I still enjoyed the book, I just felt I could have loved it.