My Review: A brave young heroine. An unusual, yet poignant friendship. A harrowing journey of self discovery, perseverance, and how far one would go to save the person they love. Sound intriguing? That doesn't even scratch the surface when trying to describe Sea Change by the extremely talented S.M. Wheeler. However, I am up for the challenge because I have a feeling that for every glowing review there will be some negative ones. Why? I fear that this novel will struggle to find its intended audience while others may pass harsh judgement before giving the story time to unfold and settle. I'm not trying to sound negative or set the book up for failure or insult the intelligence of my fellow readers. But this is a novel unlike anything I have ever read before and with this unique story comes very strong emotions. I can't help but want to protect it and defend its honor. But I need to stop being a mother bear and have faith that Sea Change can hold its own weight. My job is to explain why I liked it, what I had issues with, and let others know what to expect before delving in.
Let's start with the premise of the story as that is what drew me to Sea Change. Lilly is a young girl of marriageable age when we first meet her. Her parents, Nikolaus and Anna Rosa, where born country folk but worked their way up to nobility status. You learn rather quickly that Lilly's childhood consisted of her parents arguing constantly and the majority of the time it was about her. While some of the servants, in particular Miss Scholastika, try to shield her from the often devastating remarks, Lilly doesn't seem to react like one would expect. Instead of a deeply insecure little girl that feels sorry for herself, Lilly has the maturity of an old soul and seems remarkably unscathed despite the emotional and mental abuse from her parents, specifically her father, who doesn't even consider her his heir. Why? Because Lilly was born with a birthmark on her face, a mark that quite often resulted in her father calling her "hellspawn".
So where does this strength and resilience come from despite years of abuse? An unlikely friendship, one forged by the sea. S.M. Wheeler beautifully weaves in little vignettes of Lilly and her most precious friend Octavius, who just so happens to be a... kraken. Yes, a sea monster that in mythology has been described as gigantic and fearsome and most often the cause of shipwrecks. But in Sea Change, we get to see this legendary sea creature in a whole different light for Octavius is Lilly's true family, her protector, her confidante and loves her unconditionally. As Octavius grows larger, he is forced to hunt further out to sea for his food, sometimes disappearing for a week or two at a time. But when he does not return after an unusually long absence, Lilly knows deep in her heart that something wrong. Her most loyal friend would never abandon her, not like her very own mother. With fierce determination, Lilly sets out on her own to find Octavius, a journey that will change her in ways you could never imagine...
One of the things I loved about Sea Change is how the author creates this sense of magical realism in the beginning of the story and how it transitions into dark fantasy once Lilly sets out to find Octavius. The premise of the story is refreshingly original, but after her hasty, naive bargain with a troll that turns into a violent encounter in order to gain Octavius' whereabouts, I realized I was reading a story that could easily be considered a fairytale. But not just any fairytale. I'm talking about the old Brothers Grimm tales that were often dark, twisted, and frightening, and did not always have a happy ending.
Another thing that I enjoyed is the fact that S.M. Wheeler doesn't spell everything out for readers. For example, Lilly's birthmark was not something revealed right away. There were clues here and there, one such clue being a description of what I at first thought was a bruise on her face caused by her father. But I realized later it was in fact a birthmark: "...Miss Scholastika only rested it against Lilly's cheek, the side of her face where the skin looked darkly bruised, brown and black, swollen." What this forced me to do was slow down my reading and what a great eye opener this was for me. Being a blogger has its good points and bad points and one of these bad points is feeling the need to quickly finish one book so I can move onto the next. I got into this habit of thinking books that I finish reading quickly are the best kind of stories when that is not necessarily true. Sea Change is one of those novels that if you read it too quickly, you may just miss something. It's the type of book that should be savored and that is exactly what I've been forgetting to do. Just because a story may take more time to read doesn't mean it is any less powerful than others that you can't seem to put down.
I can't go any further in this review without praising the author's writing and boundless imagination. S.M. Wheeler is a master of beautiful, lyrical prose, which ties back into that fairytale feel. There is some great use of personification and similes throughout the story as well. One of my favorites is during the scene when Lilly first meets Octavius. It was on Lilly's 8th birthday that she wandered down by the sea, searching for her bully of a cousin. She was just about to leave when she heard a noise and realized something was being eaten by a seagull. Octavius was only a tiny sea creature then and at the mercy of a hungry seagull. "Crying insults at her, the gull took flight" after she waved it away. I also love how Lilly gave Octavius his name and how the author chose to express it in words: "She looked to him, thinking: eight limbs, gold eyes, both intelligent and merry. It called for something with an ancient but teasing feel. 'Octavius! Or Octavia.--Which would you be?' 'The first one. I like the noises.' Again those arms wriggled with excitement. 'Octavius, Octavius--I'll have a name to tell the sirens when they say I will never grow big, I will say, I must match my long name by growing long. And the selkies cannot eat something with such a strong word-weapon.' He giggled, touched her cheek again. Fascinated with the texture of her skin, she realized. 'Thank You.'"
Even though Lilly is the narrator, I like how S.M. Wheeler uses Octavius as a way to see the world in a different way. When Lilly is older and troubled over her father's reluctance to find her a suitable suitor, mainly because he is ashamed of the mark on her face, Octavius says, "I would parade you in the hall of the monarchs of the ocean if you could breathe water." Or Octavius describing the difference between man hunting wales and how he hunts them. He says: "There are men who hunt those waters for whales--and oh! the pitiful wailing of that proud people when the harpoons strike their sides. It is entirely unlike their war-bellows when I hunt them." Such an interesting way for us as the reader to see things the way Octavius does-- who would have thought that whales could be proud creatures that had their own "war bellows" when battling other sea creatures?
So here is what I had issues with. At first Lilly's journey is exciting, frightening, and even heart breaking. We meet an interesting array of characters, from a troll to a circus master, to a reanimated tailor that can make coats of illusions, to a skinless witch, to bandits. Her journey is fascinating yet hard to witness because the girl with an old soul that seemed so confident in the beginning of the story becomes stripped away. You get to see her naivety and innocence as she makes these life changing (and let's not forget physically altering) bargains and promises in order to win Octavius his freedom. But where the story starts to stutter is the rather long stay with the bandits. In order to help the witch get her skin back from the bandits (truly creepy, she reminds me of the woman in the movie Hellraiser II), she has to gain their trust, and trust takes time. But I think what is lacking is the void of Octavius. The first 50 pages built the foundation of their relationship through memories. Then the last 100 pages is Lilly finding her way back to Octavius. But during her stay with the bandits he is hardly mentioned if not at all. I guess what I am trying to say is, maybe an occasional dream or past memory of him would have helped break up the monotony. I get this is Lilly's story, but a reminder of what she is doing all this for would have helped because I myself was becoming restless. On the flipside of that, perhaps the lack of Octavius being mentioned was intentional by the author. After all, I know her stay with the bandits was a big part of her growth as a character because it was there that she learned how to prepare food, sew, take care of the sick-- all the skills she would need to survive in the world on her own. But I'd also like to think that Lilly's endurance and dedication to saving Octavius is what kept her going when most would have given up.
My only other gripe with the story is the rather abrupt ending. I don't need every book to have a happy ending nor do I need every plot point to be explained and tied up into neat little bows. And sometimes an ambiguous ending can be really thought provoking. However, Sea Change doesn't really do any of those things. It just...ends. I don't really want to say any more and this is NOT to discourage anyone from picking up the novel. Because despite the abrupt ending and the drawn out story in the middle, I still give Sea Change a 4 star rating. It's just THAT good. And while I may not be at liberty to say this, a sequel to Sea Change is being worked on. Whether or not it comes to fruition is something we all will have to wait and see.
Some books are more challenging than others and may require focus and careful reading. Sea Change is one of those books. At times it may confuse you, it may frustrate you, it may even lose you, but I promise if you stick it out, things will start to connect and come full circle. Although Lilly is technically a teenager, I would not recommend this novel for young children. I'm thinking 16 and older due to mature subject matter, disturbing and violent scenes.
"He is my oldest and dearest friend, she would say. A balm to my hurts and a brightness to my day."
--Lilly's thoughts on Octavius
SEA CHANGE BOOK TRAILER
AUTHOR Q&A WITH S.M. WHEELER, Author of Sea Change
1. After reading Sea Change which I found utterly captivating, thought-provoking, and a bit enigmatic, I wanted to learn more about the person who wrote such a unique story. But you seem as mysterious as your novel! Can you tell us a little about yourself and/or your background?
I am tickled by the words you chose to describe the novel. It's very special to have that kind of reader response. On the topic of myself, there isn't much to tell. I grew up isolated and retain the habits developed in that time.
2. Sea Change has such an interesting premise that reminds me of the original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales which were dark, twisted, and quite often frightening. What inspired you to write this story? Of all things for Lilly to form an unlikely friendship with, why a kraken?
The Tales themselves had quite a lot to do with the motivation to write a novel that incorporated just those qualities which you have named. This was a milieu into which Lilly's personality fitted quite well; when you ask how a character develops as a person over the course of a work, the nature of the world should lend itself to the direction you wish to go. The first piece of prose I wrote with Lilly and Octavius was actually set in a contemporary world; that didn't work in the least. I might have gone towards post-apocalyptic or Western, I think (though obviously in the latter Octavius couldn't be a kraken!), but neither of those were my obsession at the time nor utilized the affection I still hold for fairytales and folklore.
For the record, I get questions about inspiration quite a lot, and I find myself answering differently each time. It's quite complicated.
As to the kraken-- good question! This is something I've written about at length elsewhere, but I'm still not sure of my own motivation. This sounds terribly odd and I don't particularly like saying it's all subconscious and whatnot, but that's really the best I have. Well, there's a bit more: it's fun writing about a creature that is all super-flexible limbs, cephalopods are cool creatures, and I think he suits Lilly much as the Brothers Grimm setting does.
3. After I read Sea Change and was doing a little research, I was surprised to see that it is being listed on many blogs/sites as Young Adult Fantasy. While I get that Lilly is no older than 18 in the story, I didn't get the vibe that Sea Change was a young adult novel. Can you clarify its genre and/or what the book is being marketed as?
I wrote it while in the "young adult" age bracket but not with the intention of its conforming to YA conventions. Marketing is an interesting topic and one that I leave to the experts. Sea Change is not categorized as a teen book on Amazon.com, so maybe that's the way it's being spun? I don't mind either way except that Wikipedia informs me that twelve years old is the lower limit of the YA demographic and I'd be alarmed if a kid that age asked me to sign a copy.
The fact that I had to check Wikipedia says something about my knowledge base, doesn't it? I'm really not familiar with the genre, though I've read some of the vampire and werewolf books in it (no shame, y'all; I respect Stiefvater's work in particular), which seems to be in a sub-genre of their own with close conformation to certain themes and plot arcs and not useful in comparing Sea Change with.
That was a very roundabout way to say "I dunno", but there you have it.
4. The format of Sea Change is a little different from some traditional novels in that it does not have chapters. Any particular reason you chose this format?
Chapters never occurred to me as an option. Sea Change is vastly shorter than my other work, so sectioning it into smaller pieces wasn't intuitive. It's further distinguished from the other project by the continuity between scenes. For me, writing the book was a study in linking one moment closely to the next.
5. As I stated in my review, I was a bit disgruntled at the abrupt ending of Sea Change. Without any major spoilers, can you explain why? Is there a sequel in the works?
There is a potential sequel in the works. I won't make promises, because I feel terrible if I fell through on them. It's a fun project, though, and as of writing this I'm 20,000 words into it. These are good signs. There is a concept for a third book, but it exists currently as a smattering of snippets and a lot of ideas, so the lack of promises goes doubly for that.
The abrupt ending is a symptom of my having done such terribly things to Lilly that she doesn't have the mental or emotional energy to be a narrator anymore. POV characters need to really want something, and by the last scene she's put down that burden. It's my hope that seeing her from the outside will interest readers in the proposed second novel, and further that they will feel affection for the new narrator.
6. What are you working on now?
See above about the potential sequel. I also love taking prompts at my writing journal; those are a good way to loosen up my writing hand after a break, and I'm also lucky to have very intelligent people who are apt to spark inspiration with their suggestions. Meanwhile, there's also a novel in limbo about middle aged lesbians, colonial guilt, and the gradual crumbling of human architecture (literal and variously metaphorical). I really like that one.