In Cat Hellisen’s debut novel, When the Sea is Rising Red, the port city of Pelimburg is tightly controlled by a rigid caste system that has been in place for hundreds of years. Implemented to quell the unleashing of dark magic, the ruling Houses lord it over the Low Lammers, or Hobs, who live in squalor on the streets or bound in service to the High Lammers.
Life as a High Lammer isn’t all glamour and luxury and magic, however. High Lammer women are confined to loveless arranged marriages, dominated by a patriarchal society that allows them no freedoms. Faced with this prospect, Felicita Pelim’s best friend Ilven commits suicide by throwing herself into the sea. Grieving, Felicita runs from her own preordained future, leaving her House and her family in favour of a rag-tag life among the Hobs in the bowels of the city. Taken in by the Whelk Streeters, a group of Hobs led
by the shady rogue, Dash, Felicita is overwhelmed by her new lifestyle and a fierce attraction to Dash. An increasingly strange friendship with a troubled vampire named Jannik further tugs at Felicita’s loyalties. (In case you’re yawning, yes, there are vampires in this book, but they’re not stereotypical fare: they are another disenfranchised segment in Pelimburg’s class system, bent on elevating their historically disreputable status as reviled blood drinkers). Finally, as if Felicita isn’t tormented enough, bloodless corpses keep washing ashore, indicating the rise of the dreaded Sea Witch, a mythical creature that threatens the entire city. Faced with the destruction of her House, and the loss of her new friends, Felicita is forced to make a life-or-death decision.
I was hugely impressed with Hellisen’s skillful world-building and characterization. The sea takes on a primary role as caregiver (and destroyer) of the people of Pelimburg, and the way it’s changing tides and constant presence affects both High and Low Lammers is indelible. Beautifully-rendered descriptions of Felicita’s dangerous adventures with her newfound Hob companions contrast starkly with her pampered, suffocating life at home, and her confusion as to her place in the world – and how to use her magic within it – is highly believable. I particularly loved the passages referencing the bad poets’ society known as The Crakes, and the bawdy theatre groups formed by the Hobs – there’s a sort of Shakespearean vibe to them, and their presence further demarcates class lines.
If I have one complaint with When the Sea is Rising Red, it’s that it ends a tad too tidily: it seems to me that all of the wonderful build-up to the rising of the Sea Witch (and the massive development of Felicita’s character en route) is somehow dismissed too lightly in the end, with an almost casual wrap-up. That notwithstanding, it would be an utter shame to miss out on the rest of the book because, really, it’s just that good.