I wont be exaggerating that I have been “wanting” to read this book ever since I saw the hardbound glorious version of the cover – the deep-sea diver, complete with the round foggy helm with that axe and spear strapped to his back standing with the rising sea and toxic fumes rising all around him. This was way back in 2011 when the book first came out. I finally bought this book in an Amazon sale last week. Needless to say then that as soon as I cracked open the first few pages with trembling fingers, I was sucked into this stunning vortex of epic fantasy laced with steam-punk, science-fiction and dark fantasy elements.
A little more context now. Alan Campbell is a wildly exciting writing talent – it’s a fact that got cemented into my head after I read the first few pages – sampler – of the Scar Night. Deep-Gate codex series that brought this erstwhile video-game designer turned writer/photographer to international acclaim. And what is wild and exciting is the bold and vividly imagined worlds he creates.
The first in the Gravedigger Chronicles, Sea of Ghosts brings to us another gloriously created world – where the sea-levels are rising and waters have turned toxic – “brine” a substance left over by the last inhabitants of this world before humans. A race called Unmer who were defeated by the human slaves with their psychic telepathic Haurstaf witches – who now keep the Unmer under control. But the brine is not the only legacy that Unmer have left behind. Unmer Artefacts are littered on the sea-bed – valued as “troves” and collectibles. Dragons that were once humans, void-flies that can eat and drill holes through a dragon or metallic ship-hulls in seconds, spectacles that show you the past, Knives that let the blind soldiers see, Replicating Swords that create holographic soldiers of the wielder….the list of Alan’s inventive worldbuilding goes on and on. This book is full of them and you would be left agape with wonder at the marvellous levels of ingenuity that Alan spins around you.
So a bit about the plot then. This is the story of Thomas Granger, once the leader of the best infiltration units of the Empire – now enemy of the state who has fled the mainlands to a faraway island called Ethugra masquerading as a Jailor. His fugitive life however gets blown once he takes charge of this new prisoner – his own daughter Ianthe – a petulant teenager with unexplained prowess that could even challenge the Haurstaff witches. Naturally everyone is interested in Ianthe. Starting with this mad, genius-scientist Maskelyne – who calls himself a metaphysicist and an Unmer artefact collector – And of course the Sisterhood of Haurstaff headed by this “cruelly unsubtle but clever” sister Briana Marks “who finds deep enjoyment in the power games between her own organization and the empire . How Granger rescues his daughter back from the clutches of these power-hungry insane bunch who want to use Ianthe for their own malevolent schemes forms the rest of the heady plot.
It takes time to get things going. Trapped as we are in this glorious world of brine-filled seas and “Drowned” people who continue their lives normally under the water – without their minds – the plot is the last thing on our minds for sometime. But once the search-and-rescue mission for his daughter starts, Granger is a possessed man. And the pace is breakneck. The author takes Granger to the jails of the Emperor Hu – a man fuelled by ego and power and hell-bent of making an example out of Granger’s trial – then onto wild frothing seas on a maritime adventure with booming ship cannons warfare – and then to the unknown frozen wastes of the North – where Granger discovers the secrets of the Unmer.
The novel starts off as a low-fantasy then high-tails to become a little more epic with more of the backstory of this world being revealed – then completely flips to become science-fictional as more of the Unmer legacy and secrets are exposed. Yeah. The ride is wildly exciting punctuated with non-stop thrills on the way – guaranteed to suck you in.
The story unfolds from 3-4 third party POV – Granger, his daughter Ianthe, Maskelyne and Sister Briana Marks. Sadly for me – not one of the characters were remotely likable. Apart from Granger, the secondary characters were a little too stereotypical and lacked depth. Maskelyne who starts off as the mad genius, actually did grow on me – a scientist out to crack the secrets of this bubbling world on the brink of violence. Even Granger by the time we hit the end of the book – transforms into “man clad in metal from head to toe – brine burns covered his naked face. Eyes red and wild as a berserker dragon.”
Overall, I enjoyed this book. But felt cheated and disappointed by the ending – a mighty cliff-hanger. It seems like a vast preparatory novel for the next books in the series. The world is set now. A fantastic phenomenally well-imagined world ripe with possibilities, waiting to explode. Drop in characters just about getting their groove right. Ianthe coming to terms with her prowess. Granger – an embittered father out to rescue his daughter who discovers the Unmer. Maskelyne still struggling to comprehend his world. But by the end, I felt Alan played with his cards just a little too close to his heart. A terrifying world with characters ready to get on with their acts now – Sure but this book reveals nothing and leaves you with more questions than when you started. In a good way, actually. And so it just makes the wait for part-2, The Art of Hunting – that much more unbearable.
Sea of Ghosts is another towering testimony to the vast troves of talent that Alan Campbell brings to the Fantasy writing scene.