Book cover: The Drowning EyesTazir needs to take find a passenger to pay the bills, but when a rich girl with too much money crosses her path in Shasa’s dive bar, she quickly realises she’s taken on more than she bargained for. Shina is more than she seems – the last, best hope to defeat the marauding Dragon Ships and restore the Windspeakers’ power.

The Drowning Eyes always sounded like a big enough idea to carry a novel, but I was surprised and delighted to find myself satisfied with how it worked as a bite-size book. Emily Foster’s debut is confident and assured, getting off to a rapid start and sketching in the details as it bounds along.

Perspectives switch between Tazir – too old for this shit, and grumpy with it – and Shina herself, weighed down by the gravity of her quest and the horror of her memories. Foster takes the time to give her characters depth with an economy of storytelling reminded me of my recent delight in the Lychford novellas. Even on the Giggling Goat, the tiny crew have different origins and different attitudes – bluff Kodin, like many Tashi (apparently), is superstitious when it comes to the Windspeakers and their power; down-to-earth Tazir is full of distaste for what she considers their barbaric practices even as she admires their utility; Chaqal seems more interested in Shina’s well-being than her origins. 

The world-building gets a lighter touch, but there’s enough here to easily envision an enchanting environment that reminded me of Earthsea (and in doing so has almost certainly disrupted my plans for what I read next). Given the focus on Shina and her quest, we learn enough of the Windspeakers – stone-eyed, religious, revered and feared – to fascinate (and appall – apprentices have to have their eyes put out to replace them with those stones) and set intriguing questions about where the story will lead.

The Dragon Ships harry them from port to port, and if their origins and motivations are never particularly clear, this doesn’t really matter – they are foreign invaders with unexpected powers, intent on slaughtering the inhabitants of the archipelago.

For all its focus on saving the islands from the marauders and retrieving the Windspeakers’ stolen icon, a subplot builds as neatly and powerfully as one of Shina’s winds: the twin ethical threads of personal responsibility and the greater good. Tazir is quickly won over by what she perceives as Shina’s power, but her moral compass points to a different north than that of the young apprentice. Where Shina is horrified to realise her storms can cause as much harm as help, Tazir takes the view that villagers should build better houses if they don’t want them washed away. I spent the last quarter of the book wondering exactly where this would lead: would Tazir persuade Shina to keep her eyes and her unchecked power? 

This was a great read that ticked so many boxes for me (strong female characters, characters of colour, apparent gender parity, f/f and bisexual rep) and I have no qualms in recommending it. Yes, it would also work as a novel – but it works brilliantly just the length it is, thanks to the narrow focus and clever use of detail to make it feel bigger than it is. I found the climactic storm is the weakest part of the narrative, but not so much that it undermines a great fantasy read. I was surprised to find that a book this short had space for an epilogue – it’s not the way I foresaw some of the threads being tucked away, but left me happy that they had been. 

Besides, if the “worst” thing I can say about a story is that it invokes a burning need to go reread A Wizard of Earthsea (in a good way), then I’m really clutching at straws. I’ll be looking out for further adventures from Emily Foster for sure. 

****

Bite-sized Books is a regular celebration of short-form fiction – point me towards your short story / novella reviews to be included in an upcoming showcase of short form reviews from around the blogosphere.