When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
There are so many misconceptions about Cat Hellisen's When the Sea is Rising Red. It's been labelled as being everything from historical fiction and romance, to paranormal and even, get this, dystopian fiction
All of which it is not.
What the book is, is a masterfully told and beautifully written fantasy novel that even fights against the strains of the very genre it is defined by. It's a novel of magic and mayhem. It's a book world that is filled with a wondrous kind of wind-swept beauty, starkly juxtaposed by the divisive lines between the rich and the poor.
It's a book that every fantasy lover should read and it's also a novel that surprised me on so many different levels, in so many different ways.
The story kicks off when we're introduced to 17-year old Felicita. Born into a wealthy and strict family in the village of Pelimburg, her life takes a rather drastic turn when her best friend Ilven, commits suicide in order to escape the entrapments of a pending and arranged marriage.
Prompted into action, Felicita decides to rather fake her death and risk running away rather than having to endure the same fate - and chooses freedom over the suffocating life that she's always known.
But heading out on her own doesn't come without its own set of problems, and with the magic that she's left behind, she soon finds that living in the slums and washing dishes for a living is but a taste of the new and unfamiliar territory that she's set to tread.
It's here where she meets the charismatic and influential Dash, while at the same time, becomes embroiled in the life of a much maligned vampire named Jannik. Navigating her way through the village slums, Felicita finds herself learning to adapt to living in the part of town where the people are more than a little hostile towards the Pelimburg system.
When Ilven's dead body washes up on the shore, rumours of a wild and dangerous magic about to be unleashed run rife, and along with that, the knowledge that she may or may not have to destroy the ones she love when she discovers that there are some out there who would use any means necessary to destroy the wealthy caste system.
Cat Hellisen's When the Sea is Rising Red is a breathtaking and mesmerising read. I went into this novel, not entirely sure of what to expect, but came out, knowing that I got a whole lot more than I bargained for, in the best way possible.
First thing you should know:
Cat Hellisen is a phenomenal writer. The book contains some of the most achingly exquisite and lyrical prose that I've ever come across in a YA novel. Her descriptions of life in the fictional town of Pelimburg are so magic-filled and vivid that it forces you to turn back pages in the book time and time again, just so that you can reread what she has written.
There's a wild kind of beauty that exists in the world that she's conjured up and created. It's something primal, unleashed and untamed, its magic and danger bubbling and frothing under the surface - all waiting to be discovered.
The wealth of description will leave you breathless and may, in many parts, remind you of Cape Town (It certainly did for me).
You'll meet selkies and boggarts, encounter a strange type of magic system only used by an allocated caste (no surprises for guessing which side of the divide you'd need to be on) and become more than a little invested in the fantastic, intriguing and complex characters that Cat has created.
Felicita is a character that is definitely worth getting to know. Coming from a stifling, but wealthy background, I had to applaud her for being bold enough to make a decision that would not only leave her at risk to a hostile community, but one that would also mean that she'd never be able to turn back to where she came from, ever again.
Her internal struggles as she tries to pave a way for herself in the company of people who barely trust her, are incredibly real. What I especially loved about her, is that some traces of her snobbishness still slipped through the cracks.
So many authors make the mistake of immediately allowing their characters to instantly become comfortable surroundings, but I really loved that Felicita's transformation was a gradual process as this added an element of realism that was both welcoming and refreshing.
It's also interesting to see how resourceful she's forced to become without having (legal) access to the magic that she's always been used to.
Then of course, there are the characters she encounters.
There's Dash, the enigmatic, charismatic boy who has more influence over the people of the village than she realises. Dash is the kind of boy your mother wouldn't want you to bring home, and probably why Felicita (alright, alright - you can include me too), would want to do just that.
He's cocky, mysterious and knows more than he lets on. And oh bugger, did I mention that he'll charm the socks off you? For me, that's usually a sign that a boy spells trouble. One thing's for certain though, Felicita's world just got a little more interesting with his presence in her life.
He's not the only interesting character though. There's Jannik the vampire (he was such a closed-book to me, but I loved him nonetheless), Esta (the never-smiling half-selkie girl) and Lils and Nala (characters who, without a doubt, end up surprising towards the end of the novel).
I wish I could describe the magic in and of this novel in more detail, but some books are not meant to just be read and reviewed. They're meant to be experienced.
Cat Hellisen's When the Sea is Rising Red? Needs to be experienced. Over and Over again. It's just that phenomenal.
Oh, and you want to know that best part? She's South African.
Keen on reading this book? Buy your copy now.
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