Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

This is my first Alan Campbell book so I went in cold with no expectations or prior knowledge. After finishing the book I searched online and realised I was peripherally aware of the author and had heard of God of Clocks and Scar Night.

sea-of-ghostsSo, with all of that in mind, I found this to be a very ambitious novel that is packed full of creative ideas. Calling it a fantasy novel is in some ways limiting, as it crosses many genres and has dragons, technology, science, mysticism and lots of other stuff I won’t spoil. The story is quite slow to start and the unusual setting added to this, because at the same time as trying to work out what was happening, I was also trying to put the world together in my head and understand the immediate threat. The story follows Thomas Granger, a man who should know better, but he opens his mouth and drops himself in it. As a result he is forced to run for his life and start over in a new prison city with a new identity. A few years later Granger finds out that he can’t escape his past as quickly as he would like as old enemies find out where he is and they want to see him brought to justice.

The world building and setting in the story is remarkable. It is a grim place that mixes technology and something that borders on magic, where telepaths are a necessary evil that others must suffer or else risk attack from something even worse. Relics and technology from a dangerous race that was eventually beaten litter the world and are bought and sold for huge sums of money. The problem is most people have no idea what most of it does, how it works or what it was originally designed for. Also the sea is a terrible enemy, a place that can transform ordinary people into the Drowned, underwater shark people and every person has adapted their way of living to cope with the poisonous brine. This is perhaps the most compelling and interesting idea in the novel and it is disturbing, terrifying and also fascinating.

Campbell’s characterisation is solid and we really get under the skin of young Ianthe and Granger. Another character that was introduced later, Maskelyne, becomes a more important player as the story progresses and without spoiling it too much, he is a very nasty piece of work. It’s not completely unexpected, given that he is essentially a crime boss, but he sees himself as something completely different and this is where I first had some problems with the book. This may not have been the intention but I believe Maskelyne is a sociopath and possibly a psychopath. He is not driven by lust or power or greed, but a thirst for knowledge and he wants to understand the old technology and uncover its true purpose. I also came up against a barrier that may only be an issue for me, but I didn’t like the character in any way and I couldn’t connect to him, therefore I didn’t care about his fate or what he was doing. I thought he was a despicable creature who was willing to do anything to anyone if it got in the way of his research, hence my belief that he is also a sociopath.

The other issue I had was the character wandered off and started writing about his theories in his journal and as a result the story becomes heavy with exposition in some places. I’m also not sure about the relevance of Maskelyne’s research to the overall story, which is at its core a rescue story, to begin with at least. During these moments it began to feel more like a science fiction novel too. The theories might be relevant further down the line in later books in the series, but they robbed the story of its momentum. I think the start of the book is one story, then it changes into something else, than it changes again, and as a result of all these changes I lost interest and some of my enthusiasm for the story. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling it, but Ianthe and Granger’s story were the most interesting story threads for me.

There are some great moments, epic scenes and horrific battles, and this is a very unusual fantasy novel, but I’m not sure it’s right for me. Campbell is a very talented writer with a vivid imagination and he does a great job of making the world feel real and lived in. Once you get into the book and used to his style it becomes easier to absorb the new concepts without being overwhelming. He definitely has a unique style and if you like fantasy novels that mash together several genres, with a story that is unpredictable and savage, then this book is for you.

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