I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/F or wlw
Published by DAW on 19th January 2021
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
The first book in a new environmental epic fantasy series set in a world where ships kept afloat by magical hearthfires sail an endless grass sea.
On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother--The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper--has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.
But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.
To follow in her grandmother's footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.
Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything--ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun--to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.
The first thing you need to know about The Forever Sea is that the setting is pretty incredible: in Kindred’s world, land is surrounded by the Forever Sea – an endless ocean of giant-sized grass, flowers with magical properties, and wild creatures that can tear ships apart. Because yes, despite the sea being made of grass, ships do sail it – using magical fires which are controlled with bones.
Are you wowed yet? Because you really should be. The worldbuilding is a wonder – simultaneously out-of-this-world, but with a culture familiar enough to not feel alien. It’s a delicate line to walk, but Johnson manages it deftly. And so much thought has gone into this! The hearthfires that power ships are an excellent example – they’re fueled with bones, but not just any bones. They must be the bones of a dead captain – presumably something to do with the mysterious, secret ritual that makes a sailor into a captain: it’s not as simple as someone just buying their own ship and putting on a captain’s hat. And it gets even more intricate, because it’s not as simple as putting bones on the fire – a Hearthkeeper builds, well, ‘builds’ out of the bones, and the different builds make a ship go up or down, left or right, faster or slower. Ships on the Forever Sea do have sails, but no steering wheel or rudder (as far as I could tell): it’s all down to the mysterious flames.
Flames which sing, if you’re able to hear them.
The problem is that the story doesn’t really live up to the world Johnson’s created. At first, it looks promising; we’re introduced to Kindred, Hearthkeeper of The Errant, as the ship flees from pirates, racing to reach Arcadia before the pirates can take them down. We quickly learn that Kindred has a relationship to the hearthfire that other Hearthkeepers don’t, and that they don’t understand or believe in, but that gives her a deeper understanding of the flames and how to work with them. And Arcadia, when they reach it, is a beautifully fleshed-out island where the people live by night and walk slow to conserve all the water they can. The initial conflict, in fact, is fueled by the scarcity of water – or rather, the man who’s taken advantage of that scarcity to somehow build up a monopoly, which in turn has given him control of the city-island’s politics and laws.
Honestly, the book is really strong throughout this part; it’s a very good beginning, with detailed worldbuilding and believable conflict, sketching out the characters and the culture they come from. The scene where Kindred learns of her grandmother’s ‘death’, and mourns with her grandmother’s crew, is beautiful and poignant; and the subsequent battle where Kindred and her fellow crew are driven out over a mistake/conspiracy about water supplies is powerful and cinematic in the best way.
But after that, it really starts to fall apart. Although the worldbuilding remains incredible, the characters wash out to 2-dimensional figures, and the various subplots are resolved mostly by incredible coincidence or too-simple solutions. Kindred becomes obsessed with following her grandmother down under the Forever Sea, but Johnson doesn’t really make this believable at all; never once did I understand why Kindred wanted this, and wanted it so badly, when her entire world insists that it’s death. I was shocked when she, in a move that seemed uncharacteristic of her, lied and manipulated her fellow crew into taking a more dangerous route when the captain is out of commission; something that is apparently motivated by her desire to go to the Deeps, except…that’s not where they’re going. Kindred directs them to the Once-City, a mythical giant tree/pirate city/titanic ship, because…? It’s not really clear. She associates the Once-City with her desire for the Deeps, but why isn’t really explained, nor why she thinks it’s okay to lie and manipulate her friends in the way that she does.
The Once-City feels like a conglomeration of too many ideas that Johnson couldn’t sort out, and at the same time, weirdly simplistic. On the one hand, one of the levels of the city is taken up by a magical (mini-?)forest full of ghosts that will rip people apart for no apparent reason; on the other hand, nobody comments on the fact that the Once-City houses Kindred + pals in a place literally called ‘Cruel House’, which is coincidentally run by a complete jerk. One of the city’s Council members is one mind in two bodies which speaks in utterly bizarre riddle-type things; this is never explained. The Once-City is also stuck in place because its hundreds of hearthfires have turned inexplicably grey; Kindred eventually discovers (in a move that, again, feels like Because Plot rather than anything organic) that some of the fires have a wrong kind of bone in them, but what that is or how they got there is also not explained. Kindred and co are warned that the magical healing of the Once-City’s physicians is dangerous and ‘will change you’, but that doesn’t make sense either; both Kindred and the captain receive this healing, and it doesn’t warp them the way the warnings implied that it would.
The book builds into a conflict between Arcadia and the Once-City, and in hindsight Kindred calls this a water-war, but…it makes no sense. For the Once-City to attack Arcadia; yes, okay, it’s revealed that they’re running out of water and they’re clearly trying to save themselves. But they’re not the aggressors, and it’s never clear to my why the hell Arcadia expends the resources they do in trying to annihilate the Once-City when they find it. This is a culture where people don’t raise their voices or let themselves get worked up, because it means losing sweat and saliva in a world where water is priceless. It’s not believable to me that a people who are careful to walk slowly would initiate a war.
While I was delighted that Kindred was queer – bisexual or pansexual isn’t clear – the romance also kind of comes out of nowhere. I actually didn’t mind that so much – quieter romance plotlines are my jam, generally – but it is mind-boggling how quickly her paramour agrees that sure, going into the Deeps would be great, let’s do it. What??? Just. No. Why don’t more people think Kindred is nuts? Why aren’t they scared for her? Why don’t they try to talk her out of it? I love my husband more than anything, but if he announced he wanted to rent a car and go driving under the sea I’d take him to the hospital, not the rent-a-car place! Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you go along with their (you think) suicidal ideas without batting an eye.
Really, all the characters lose more and more of their…their definition as the story goes on. By the end, several, especially the ‘villains’, have just become caricatures. It’s ridiculous and such a let-down.
With all that said? If you can sort of…let it go, that the characters are Like That, and that some of the problems are resolved a little too neatly…it’s a very readable book. It’s a very beautiful world. The theme of living in harmony with nature is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s still poignant. Once I put blinkers on to blind me to its flaws, The Forever Sea was a book I enjoyed reading. Johnson has no problems with prose: the scene where Ragged Sarah, crow-called of The Errant, summons the birds of the Forever Sea to tell her of the state of the sea? Is breathtaking, and will stay with me for a long, long time.
And I’ll probably pick up the sequel, because the ending sinks its hooks in deep, and a lot of the things that aren’t explained? I really want answers!