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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Sea of Ghosts” by Alan Campbell (Reviewed by Robert Thompson and Liviu Suciu)

Official Alan Campbell Blog
Order “Sea of GhostsHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of The Deepgate Codex HERE, HERE + HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: After graduating from Edinburgh University, Alan Campbell worked for DMA Design, Visual Sciences and Rockstar, designing such video games as Body Harvest, Formula One 2000, and Grand Theft Auto. After completing Vice City, Alan left to pursue a career in photography and writing. His bibliography includes The Deepgate Codex and the novella “Lye Street”.

PLOT SUMMARY: When the last of the Gravediggers, an elite imperial infiltration unit, are disbanded and hunted down by the emperor they once served, Colonel Thomas Granger takes refuge in the unlikeliest of places. He becomes a jailer in Ethugra—a prison city of poison-flooded streets and gaols in which enemies of the Empire are held captive. But when Granger takes possession of two new prisoners, he realizes that he can’t escape his past so easily.

Ianthe is a young girl with an extraordinary psychic talent. A gift that makes her unique in a world held ransom by the powerful Haurstaf—a sisterhood of telepaths who are all that stand between mankind and the threat of the Unmer, a powerful civilization of entropic sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors. In this war-torn land, Ianthe promises to make Granger an extremely wealthy man, if he can only keep her safe from harm.

This is what Granger is best at. But when other factions learn about Ianthe's unique ability, even Granger's skills of warfare are tested to their limits. While Ianthe struggles to control the powers that are growing in ways no one thought possible, another threat is surfacing—one who, if not stopped, will drown the world and all of humanity with it...

CLASSIFICATION: Sea of Ghosts is a nautical-themed epic fantasy that reminded me a of cross between Robert V.S. Redick’s accessible Chathrand Voyage series and the grittier works of Glen Cook, James Clemens and Alan Campbell’s very own Deepgate Codex, while the book’s magic system brought to mind Mark Charan Newton and Ken Scholes. Recommended for fans of Brandon Sanderson, Robert V.S. Redick, Chris Wooding, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and the like...

FORMAT/INFO: Sea of Ghosts is 500 pages long divided over eighteen titled chapters and a Prologue & Epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Colonel Thomas Granger, Ianthe, Ethan Maskelyne the metaphysicist and Unmer expert, and Sister Briana Marks of the Haurstaf. Sea of Ghosts is the opening volume in The Gravedigger Chronicles with the book ending on a couple of minor cliffhangers. April 1, 2011 marks the UK Hardcover publication of Sea of Ghosts via Tor UK. Cover art provided by Larry Rostant.

ANALYSIS: Despite its shortcomings, I was a huge fan of Alan Campbell’s debut series, The Deepgate Codex, and ever since the trilogy’s conclusion, I’ve been anxiously awaiting for news regarding the author's next book. So when Sea of Ghosts was finally announced, it instantly became one of my most anticipated releases of 2011...

Looking back on The Deepgate Codex, what I loved most about the trilogy was Alan Campbell’s creative and vivid imagination, which included bringing to life an ancient Gormenghastian-influenced city suspended by giant chains over a cavernous abyss that was the home of a god, and a Hell that would give Dante and John Milton nightmares. That same inventive imagination is on full display in the author’s new book, Sea of Ghosts, which introduces readers to a world slowly drowning in brine, a toxic substance unleashed by the Unmer that also changes humans into the Drowned. Add in the telepathic Haurstaf, dragons that were once human, and a wild variety of Unmer sorcery and artefacts—void flies, skybarques, an alchemist’s pin, deadships, a Replicating Sword, seeing knives, spectacles that allow the wearer to see the past, et cetera—and it’s obvious that Alan Campbell has created another stunning fantasy world.

What’s interesting about this world, particularly Unmer sorcery, is that it possesses a science fiction element, as explained by the metaphysicist, Ethan Maskelyne:

What we perceive as sorcery is merely a method of juggling entropy. The Unmer transmit energy and matter from one place to another, most likely from one universe to another, through some sort of aspacial conduit. The Unmers’ strength lies in their ability to plunder what I have chosen to call cosmic remnants.

Our present universe is merely the latest configuration of energy and matter formed within a never-ending cycle of cosmic inflation. Like the ripples formed beneath a dripping tap—as the outer circle fades they are replaced by new ones. If my theory is correct, it means that certain aspects of Unmer sorcery are not only detrimental to our universe, but completely impossible without assistance from beyond our universe.

On the flipside, world-building was a disappointment with the author providing very little background information on the Unmer, their war with the Haurstaf, the famous Unmer traitor Argusto Conquillas, dragons, and so on. It’s a shame too, because as imaginative as the novel is, Sea of Ghosts could have been even better if Alan Campbell had done more to flesh out the setting and his creative ideas.

Plot-wise, the story in Sea of Ghosts is a fairly simple one, centered around Ianthe and her unique ability, and the three sides fighting over her: Ethan Maskelyne for her Unmer treasure hunting talent, Sister Briana Marks for her Haurstaf potential, and Colonel Thomas Granger for personal reasons. Despite the story’s simplicity, played out tropes—trial by combat, a school where the new student has to deal with bullies, the youthful protagonist with godlike powers—and the occasional deus ex machina, Sea of Ghosts is a highly entertaining novel highlighted by cinematic pacing, exhilarating action sequences, and unexpected moments of dark violence—the brutal execution of a Drowned, rape and torture—which lends a sense of gravity to the book. At least it’s this way for most of the novel. When the story shifts to Awl about 350 pages in, Sea of Ghosts starts becoming more derivative and over-the-top, and less engaging. The climax in particular—which felt rushed and underwhelming, especially compared to the first fourteen chapters in the novel—was disappointing. Thankfully, many matters introduced in Sea of Ghosts remain unresolved—the source of the Unmer’s power, the purpose of the brine and where it came from, the beach of keys, Argusto Conquillas, Ianthe’s ability, et cetera—and because of this, I have a strong feeling that the sequel will be even bigger and better than its predecessor, much the way Iron Angel was a significant improvement over Scar Night.

Alan Campbell’s characterization meanwhile, has improved since he wrote The Deepgate Codex, but is still a work-in-progress if the lack of depth and similar narrative voices suffered by Briana Marks and Ianthe are any indication. While both Briana and Ianthe add little of worth to Sea of Ghosts as POVs, Ianthe at least possesses the potential to develop into one of the most important characters in the series if handled correctly. On the other hand, Colonel Thomas Granger and Ethan Maskelyne were a joy to read. Granger in particular, was easy to root for and care about, even if the veteran soldier shares many of the same qualities—pragmatism, wits, luck—as The Black Company’s Croaker, Malazan’s Whiskeyjack and Piper Hecht from The Instrumentalities Of The Night, while the Gravedigger’s reasons for pursuing Ianthe are not very convincing. Ethan Maskelyne in the meantime, is a complex villain endowed with a brilliant intellect, charming arrogance, and homicidal insanity. He believes he is trying to save the world for his family—a wife and infant son—and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. As far as the supporting cast, expect the characters to be one-dimensional and forgettable.

CONCLUSION: Despite a disappointing finale and suffering from some of the same issues that plagued The Deepgate Codex, Alan Campbell’s Sea of Ghosts is a very impressive start to The Gravedigger Chronicles. I was particularly impressed by the significant improvement Alan Campbell has made as a writer, especially compared to his debut novel, Scar Night. In fact, for those yet to read anything by Alan Campbell, I would recommend Sea of Ghosts over The Deepgate Codex, mainly because the new series offers greater appeal than the author’s debut trilogy, while possessing the potential to be more rewarding. From a personal standpoint, I thought Sea of Ghosts was a step down from Alan Campbell’s best novel, Iron Angel, but the book was still a blast to read and I can’t wait to discover what the author has planned for the next volume in The Gravedigger Chronicles...

Liviu's take: As opposed to Robert I am not a fan of the first Alan Campbell series - The Deepgate Codex - despite that it sounded just what I enjoy a lot when announced. I bought the first book on publication but never cared enough to read beyond the first couple of chapters and then I got the second book hoping it will hook me into the series but it never did.

So Sea of Ghosts was a book far from my radar for 2011, but I received an unexpected advanced review copy from last fall and considering Robert's high praise for Mr. Campbell's writing I tried it and overall I liked it better than I expected - for once I read it carefully end to end which is more I could say for many books I open and for another I plan to read its sequel - but I still had some issues that stopped me from fully loving it. Ultimately I think it reduces to the author's style not being fully compatible with my taste, rather than anything so-called objective but here it is:

There were moments I thought the book would break out for me and become a big time favorite and then stuff like caricature villain Hu strutting around - that character is so cartoonish that he kills suspension of disbelief at any appearance - or main serious villain Maskelyne's 2 cents philosophizing and explaining how awesome a bad guy he is, would come and I would be, "not again, these things have been out of date in serious sff for ages now." Actually all the characters in Sea of Ghosts are pure stock with no depth - the frightened but very powerful girl, the "honor, duty, etc, etc" officer relegated by caricature emperor Hu to exile... In addition there were many over the top action sequences that happened because they needed to happen.

Where Sea Ghosts (B from me) shines and the reason I kept reading it, is in the ingenious world building and the unpredictable storyline that kept me curious to see where it goes. There are many goodies in the novel with lots of cool sfnal stuff: Brine Sea - well I will leave you to discover what that is - the Drowned, the whole idea of Multiverse exchange and when you think you get a grip where the author heads, there will come a twist that will make you reconsider, while the ending is excellent and promises a lot for the second volume which I plan to read for sure.


Peter Andrew Leonard said...

Sounds like a good one. Have to read his first series, too.

Thanks Robert :)

(and Liviu)

Robert said...

Thanks for the comment Peter! If you do get a chance to check out the books, I hope they're to your liking :)

Bastard said...

This has been one of my more anticipated book this year, sadly a bit too expensive for me at the moment since Bookdepository has increased their prices considerably over the past 4 or so months.

So will have to wait for the time being.

Liviu said...

I think that a lot of enjoyment for this book depends on how much you like the author's writing since to me at least it is one of the more polarizing ones - love it or dislike it kind of like Erickson, Cook and some others.

I am not sure if/when a US release will happen but have been selling US Kindle ebooks of UK books without contract in the US, so that may a way to read the book at a much moderate price than importing the print - if there is no US edition in the works of course

Robert said...

I've been speaking with the author and there is no US publisher at the moment. According to Alan, he would like to wait until he's further along in the series--at least book two completed--before approaching US publishers. Of course that could change, but for now Tor UK is the only way to get the book unless it's available electronically as Liviu mentioned...

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