Sea of Ghosts marks the beginning of a new fantasy series, The Gravedigger Chronicles, for Alan Campbell, previously known for his Deepgate Codex. Originally published last year, it was only with this year’s paperback release that the book finally caught my eye (blue covers more attractive than beige?). Sea of Ghosts turned out to be a startlingly original novel, at least with regards to it’s worldbuilding, and as one who often goes on about that sort of thing, it was a welcome surprise. With a clear intent to mix science with fantasy, Campbell creates a world of harsh conditions, and peoples it with characters who do not always possess the most depth, but are nonetheless very endearing. Coupled with a somewhat classic narrative of ‘world-defining’ proportions, this results in a fine offering on Campbell’s part.
When the last of the Gravediggers, an elite imperial infiltration unit, are disbanded and hunted down, Colonel Thomas Grange takes refuge in the unlikeliest of places, He becomes a jailer in Ethugra - a prison city of poison-flooded streets. But when Granger takes possession of two new prisoners, he realizes that he can’t escape his past so readily.
Ianthe is a young girl with an extraordinary psychic talent. A gift that makes her unique in a world held to ransom by the powerful Haurstaf - the sisterhood of telepaths who are all that stands between the Empire and the threat of the Unmer, the powerful civilization of entropic sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors.
But when other factions learn about Ianthe’s unique ability, Granger’s skills are tested to their limits. And another threat is surfacing: out there, beyond the bitter seas, and old and familiar enemy is rising - one who, if not stopped, will drown the world and all of humanity with it...
It’s an undeniable truths that some secondary worlds need very little introduction. They’re so deeply rooted in tropes or are so commonplace (fantasy medieval analogue, we’re looking at you) that stepping into them is like entering you’re own living room. You - almost instinctively - know where everything is, the purpose of the different furniture, and if you’re lucky you might even remember where you left the TV remote. Some fantasy authors will occasionally play a few tricks on you by reorienting the couch, or making the coffee table into a bench, but for the most part it takes very little time to take your bearing. Not so with those authors who construct worlds which are purposefully different. Then it might take a bit more time.
On the surface, you’d expect this to be the case with Sea of Ghosts, what with Campbell having created a world quite different from your usual fantasy world. People (or creatures?) with psychic powers abound, and one particular race of people, the Unmer, use a strange kind of scientific magic that not even the book’s characters understand. Plus, the physical characteristics of world are a bit special - that tends to happen when the whole place is slowly drowning in acid-water-which-also-happens-to-turn-people-into-swimming-zombies. Thankfully, Campbell does a marvelous job of introducing the entirety of it with tact and steady pacing. Never too much to overwhelm, but enough to be able to keep up.
And keeping up is important. Sea of Ghosts doesn’t move at a furious pace, but at a brisk one. After the relatively dynamic beginning, things do slow down a bit, but for most of the novel the story moves along at a healthy, steady march. So it’s important to be able to stick with it. The list of characters is not exhaustive, but there’s variety enough in the characters’ personalities to please most. The first protagonist, Granger, is your typical sort of hero. A successful military man who was dismissed from service not through any true fault of his own but due to the hypocrisy of a monarch, he’s the sort of honorable, will-stop-at-nothing characters we’ve all seen before. This serves the story well, and through his eyes the reader slowly discovers more about the world, and the mysteries which threaten it.
Ianthe is a much stronger character in comparison. Her particular abilities will probably be one of the primary interest of some, but the difficult sequence of events she is dragged through during the novel has undeniable appeal. Secondary characters tend to be a bit more colorful, with a psychopathic scholar, telepath, and a number of entropic sorcerers (the Unmer) being some of the highlights.
Elements of the plot are continuously made more interesting by the peculiarities of the world Campbell has created. Following Granger as he goes about the city he lives in (a city made up entirely of prisons, it should be noted) is certainly made by hazardous by the need to avoid the acid water which has flooded the city up to multiple storeys high, for example. Similarly, Campbell’s clever mix of theoretical science with magic to explain some of the events that take place adds texture to the novel. The story, though, has much to say for itself. Dynamic, of a wide scope, and with a satisfying conclusion (for the first in a series), Sea of Ghosts will likely keep you reading at a good speed.
Conclusion? I very much welcomed the creativity and thought Campbell put into the creation of his world. It wasn’t too extravagant, but had some major variances which allow it to stand out. The prose was neat and efficient, conveying a tale that was perhaps not as fresh as its world, but which has some flourishes. And its also quite a bit of fun. Campbell often also demonstrates he has a sense of humor, particularly in the crafting certain colorful characters, and elements of the plot. The characters have an appeal, but aren’t always wholly convincing. On the whole, this was a very enjoyable read, and one easily recommendable to the experienced genre reader, but not one without its drawbacks.
Alan Campbell's Website: http://www.alanmcampbell.co.uk/
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