Review of WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED by Cat Hellisen

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A haunting YA fantasy by a debut author.

Seventeen-year-old Felicita, a sheltered aristocrat, flees the rigid traditions and stifling conventions of her caste, taking refuge in the slums and falling in with a rag-tag band of outcasts, grifters, and revolutionaries. Struggling to adjust to her new life, she plunges headlong into a dangerous infatuation, and is swept up in events she doesn’t understand. By the time she realizes the true nature of what she’s become part of, it’s too late to escape.

This is a pretty familiar plot line. But Hellisen keeps it fresh with a determined and realistically conflicted heroine, interesting characters, and truly stellar world building. Atmospheric descriptions and lyrical prose bring the seaside city of Pelimburg–populated by humans, selkies and vampires (who aren’t like any other vampires you’ve met), animated by strange magics, riven by class struggle–to vibrant life. You can practically hear the gulls and smell the ocean. There’s a lot of backstory to this complex and alien world, and Hellison unfolds it in a masterful way through the action of the story and Felicita’s own self-reflection. There’s never an infodump (as a fantasy writer myself, I know how difficult that is to achieve).

I did feel that the novel meandered a bit in the middle, slowed somewhat by Felicita’s exploration of her new relationships with two very different, but equally unusual, young men. Overall, though, I found this a really rewarding read. The ending is open enough to allow for a sequel. I look forward to it.

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