Welcome to the Forever Sea, where the magic of bone and song keeps ships aloft above the endless prairie grasses. Fleeing trouble at home, The Errant sails for the pirate-haunted Roughs, the crew’s lives in the hands of junior hearthfire keeper Kindred. But even crow-caller Sarah has no idea how far Kindred is willing to go…
There are some books that snare you with the blurb’s opening sentence. The Forever Sea is one of those; a swift one-two of “sea-borne fantasy” and “but what if the seas were grass” delivered alongside the most beautiful cover art regardless of which side of the Atlantic you buy it on. I was sunk long before I got to “environmental epic fantasy” and “pirates”.
It’s fair to say The Forever Sea had a lot to live up to, and debut author Joshua Phillip Johnson isn’t here to play it safe. This is a story unapologetic about its environmental credentials, with plots woven around water scarcity, wildfires, poisoned seas and the horrific implications of the far-from-sustainable fuels required to power the ships. His cast is predominantly female, primarily sapphic (protagonist Kindred is bi- or pansexual, but there are no straight relationships on page) and largely unlikeable: driven by strange ambitions and given to selfish choices.
It won’t be for everyone, but there’s plenty to enjoy for those who take the plunge.
Kindred Greyreach is the granddaughter of maverick captain The Marchess, who taught her the magic of the hearthfire and ingrained philosophies at odds with the dominant teachings of Arcadia. Listen, the Marchess insisted. Blend. Lessons were to be
learned stolen through observation, not learned from instruction. When she sent Kindred to school, Kindred flunked out, unable to reconcile her intuitive lore with the required rote-learning of control.
Arcadia is all about control: an island becalmed amidst prairie seas forced into even plains by magic. It makes for smooth sailing, but the sea’s diversity is failing and the threat of wildfire puts everything at risk (…and they power their ships with fire. What can possibly go wrong). Ashore, the streets echo to the sound of a drum that encourages citizens to go easy, rather than work up a sweat striding about (let alone going out in the hot day). Water is scarce and not to be wasted. Amidst this carefully-regulated way of life, an unscrupulous official is forcing captains to join his Collective, determined to have all Arcadian ships flying his flag.
If Arcadia is all about imposing your will on the environment, their piratical antagonists are about living in harmony with it… and about killing your enemies to steal their stuff. One of the things I liked about The Forever Sea is that we see how every culture is flawed; nobody has all the answers, and there are no simple choices to be made. The residents of the fabled Once-City embrace the sea, but turn a blind eye – or lend an enthusiastic hand – to the fact their lifestyle is viable only at the cost of Arcadian and Mainlander lives.
Even the Marchess doesn’t have the answers, although she’s made of questions. Her shadow lies heavy over the narrative, pushing Kindred to reject received wisdom and follow in her footsteps. Kindred turned her back on her grandmother years ago, determined to forge her own path; but the Marchess’s supposed death at sea turns her into a(n eventually literal) will-o’-the-wisp who haunts Kindred. The Marchess has gone below to the deeps whence nobody ever returns in search of answers; Kindred is drawn after her.
Could she follow her own path without betraying someone? Could she follow her own dreams without burning someone else’s?
The Forever Sea is a young woman’s coming-of-age, following Kindred’s journey in search of recognition, love and acceptance – two of which she lost when she left the Marchess’s side – and a rousing adventure of warring cultures on strange seas. It is cross-cut with interludes set in a dark future on the sea-floor, where an immortal storyteller shares Kindred’s tale with audiences who plot to imprison him in an endlessly repeating history only he can recall; a post-apocalyptic framing device that clearly sets up future books in the series, but which interrupts Kindred’s tale rather than adding to it. I’ve become very impatient with this approach recently; especially in novels that already feel over-long.
Because unfortunately The Forever Sea does feel long. The book starts in a storm of action, plunging us into a shipboard crisis and Arcadian politics before The Errant‘s harrowing flight across the Forever Sea to the Once-City. It’s relentless, and the pace goes a long way to papering over the cracks. While the crew surely deserve a breather, the switch from action to creeping threat also exposes the novel’s weaknesses: the lack of definition in the supporting cast; inconsistencies in the world-building; and – always a major irritant to me – heavy-handed repetition. I read an advanced copy, so hopefully the most egregious examples (such as Kindred noticing the same thing for the first time in consecutive scenes) have been fixed for final release, but my overall impression was of a dazzling vision that – oh, the irony – would have benefitted from some judicious pruning.
If there were enough flaws in the execution to leave me slightly conflicted, The Forever Sea still stands out for its ambition and originality. It’s a towering work of imagination, from the streets of Arcadia to life at sea to the distinctive levels of the Once-City and the darkness of the seabed. There are scenes of dazzling beauty (Sarah calling the birds will live on in my imagination; the wilderness of the Roughs; the funerals for those lost at sea), Johnson carefully crafting sea-faring tropes into his grass-bound world. I love magic systems based on music, and I enjoyed how Johnson pushes music into every part of shipboard life with battle hymns and shared song to shape shared purpose. I even enjoyed the difficult, uncompromising characters and the slow-building romance, with its friends-to-lovers arc through shared glances and stories rather than a heedless physicality.
The Forever Sea is an unusual and memorable debut, and Joshua Phillip Johnson is definitely one to watch: a big imagination, a wild heart.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.