Sophie Hansa regains consciousness in a body of water, disoriented, thinking only of keeping herself afloat. She quickly realizes her new-found aunt is with her as well. The situation makes no sense to her–one minute fighting off attackers in a San Francisco alley, next minute treading water to survive. Child of a Hidden Sea comes out of the ‘parallel world’ school of fantasy, where the main characters discover there’s a fantasy world loosely connected to ours (think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
Slowly, oh-so-slowly, she reorients to her new reality. A carved spell gives her the ability to communicate in the common tongue, so she can begin conversing with her rescuers. From her long history as a diver, she approaches the world through her water experience, comparing the sea and its denizens to the world she knows. For those who enjoy the outdoors, it is a fun way to learn about the world of Stormwrack. For those who enjoy diving learning about a culture through human interactions, it might be more disappointing, as Sophie doesn’t have an anthropological frame of mind.
The starting point to her otherworld travels occurred because Sophie went searching for her birth mother. Though she grew up in a family that loved her, and has a close relationship with her younger brother Bram, she’s determined to connect to her birth parents. It didn’t go well, but Sophie is undeterred, stalking mom’s house and then following someone who looks like an aunt. She was saving the aunt from being attacked in an alley when the transfer happened.
As Sophie attempts to understand the world–or at least the biological creatures in it–she has to navigate issues with her new-found family. It turns out her aunt and half-sister live in Stormwrack, and her mother is a refugee from there. While it gives Sophie a legitimate connection to the world, it also creates a new-adult feel, a questioning of identity and family so common to those years. Even more, Sophie is particularly naive about connecting with them; she’s convinced everyone will love her if they just give her a chance. She is also grossly self-centered; as her aunt briefly regains consciousness with a knife hilt poking out of her chest, Sophie asks about her dad. Though Sophie isn’t an unlikable character–her endless curiosity and positive energy are assets–she is quite thoughtless, self-centered and generally heedless of consequences.
I feel like I grew up on those portal fantasies, so the issues about connected worlds was less disjointing than it might be for others. However, unlike the protagonists I admire, Sophie persists far too long in thinking she’s on Earth, trying to match local fauna and flora to her memories of different countries. Really–it’s more plausible to assume you’ve suddenly been transported 2000 miles? It’s a barrier for her that takes time to reconcile. Generally, I enjoyed the world-building, but I’m of biologist bent, so the focus on sea life was enjoyable. However, human cultural individuation and details on the magical system were lacking. I’d be willing to blame it on Sophie, however, as she was more focused on photographing sea life and taking samples than she was at observing human relationships.
Speaking of human relationships, I found her lust interest (“Captain Tasty”) entertaining but somewhat out of place (although also strangely naive; did she think about pregnancy? Social implications? New parasites?). She eventually develops a crush–that she unfortunately shares with her half-sister. It was hard to get a grip on Sophie’s personality. Given that she is searching for her birth parents to the extent of stalking her mother, it seems strange that she has the opportunity to talk with a half-sister and doesn’t take it. Granted, the sister is angry about an inheritance Sophie receives, but it didn’t stop her from harassing her mother. The odd thing is that I can’t tell if the shortcoming is in Dellamonica’s writing or Sophie’s character.
Writing is decent. Paragraphs are short and choppy at the beginning, mirroring Sophie’s confused state. The description is generally solid, and at a couple of points, I felt like a solid scene was conveyed–I particularly liked the otter raft. The political angles seemed the weakest; again, not sure if it is the result of Sophie’s self-involved narration or vague world-building. You aren’t going to get much sophistication from someone who refers to others cultures as “the bad guys,” or wonders if the rest of the world is as backwards as the Steele Islanders.
At the end of the day, it’s an interesting story set in an intriguing world. However, I’m indifferent on my concern for Sophie and unconvinced she is best suited to carry a plot about exploring a new world. Come to think of it, she reminds me of the self-centered, immature heroine in Darkfever. There’s also a number of nit-picky points that might bother those who note details (the fact that tech works in Stormwrack, that it is ‘secret’ and that the residents there are generally unperturbed by it). Honestly, I’d call this about the same on my rating scale as Leviathan, with about the same interest at picking up the sequel. Which is to say, it’s not an impossible idea, but I’ll probably need someone to provide photos from another world to convince me.