Sophie Hansa's story began in Child of a Hidden Sea as a quest for her birth parents; along the way, she became caught up in a murder mystery—who killed her aunt?—and a larger exploratory mystery—where, and when, is this strange planet, Stormwrack? It was a captivating take on the portal fantasy subgenre, with intricate worldbuilding and rich characterization. With A Daughter of No Nation, A. M. Dellamonica hits the ground running, thrusting Sophie back into multiple layers of investigation and complication.
One of the more noteworthy facets of this series is our protagonist, Sophie Hansa. She possesses just the right amount of complexity to be believably real, and to be read in different ways by different people: as a teenager, I would have loved her intelligence, determination, and independence; but reading Sophie when I am a few years older than her, I recognize all the hallmarks of the educated millennial—the drifting quality of her life, the slightly neurotic personality, the indefinable yearning for something more. Sophie becomes less the unattainable ideal and more of a mirror, and I can't help but feel a wink from the author in that: Here you are. The contemporary character thrust into an alternate world scenario is difficult to pull off with a straight face, and as a result I normally don't enjoy the subgenre, but Sophie and, to a lesser extent her adoptive brother Bram, more than overcome the form's pitfalls.
Then there's Sophie's father, Clydon Banning. He's a member of the lesser aristocracy, but was forced to leave his family estates and make his own way in the world. He does so as a Duelist-Adjudicator, Stormwrack's answer to an overburdened legal system: he fights as a proxy for defendants or plaintiffs who want a swift, and frequently bloody, conclusion to their court case. He also may or may not be a sociopath, and Sophie spends much of the novel trying to discern whether he is a monster, a quest further convoluted by the fact that his family's estate is maintained by slaves. It is an interesting story line, complicated by her desire to know her birth father, but here Sophie's need for a relationship feels a trifle forced.
The real draw of the series is the worldbuilding, which is best described in two parts: the natural world and the human one. The first book enchanted with under-explored glimpses of otter islands and hints of Earth origins; this volume continues to offer glimmers of recognition coupled with enough strangeness and unanswered questions to keep readers invested. As Sophie puts it (and one suspects she may be speaking for the author here), "The problem with being somewhere where everything is unknown and cool is you can never narrow down your field of inquiry enough to learn anything in depth [. . .] Getting to understand Stormwrack would take years." That larger question of understanding Stormwrack comes closer to being answered in this book, with hints of it being a far-future Earth, and speculations of comet strikes. . . . If so, what happened to our Earth? Perhaps more importantly, when? These are questions Sophie and Bram seek to answer, and which we want answered, too. Dellamonica plays out just enough string to keep us entertained without fully illuminating the mystery.
As with the first book, the plot here revolves around resolving complex legal cases that have either ensnared or interested Sophie: a stranglevine (think kudzu) infestation, and a sea turtle migration. Sophie puts her diving skills to use once more and helps solve these mysteries, and on the way we learn a little more about the flora and fauna of Stormwrack, which remain fascinating. The court cases drive at the heart of the cultural worldbuilding here, too: the great Fleet is at its core a fractured nation, and one, much like the early United States, divided by the question of slavery (while there are ethnic differences between the island nations, slavery on Stormwrack is less a function of skin color than it is national boundaries). Naturally, Sophie is thrust in the middle, a daughter of the leading nations on the slave and free sides, and upon her actions rests the possibility of war. Dellamonica offers a nuanced look at this difficult issue; not through Sophie, who as a modern woman is suitably horrified, but through a look at both slaveholder and abolitionist estates: the former are prosperous and well-maintained, the dangers of the local environment—poisonous leeches and tree bark-colored vipers, among others—kept safely at bay; the latter are run down, impoverished, unable to support workers' families. Then there's Clydon himself: "'What would have you me do, Sophie? Sell them? [. . .] I have been in this trap before,' he said suddenly. 'Grappling with someone who [. . .] seemed to imagine I could simply wave my hand and change the world.'" We are asked to see slavery as a trap, not only for the slaves, but for those who own them, too. Not an equal trap by any means, but it is a mark of how complex and nuanced this world is, and how willing the author is to take risks with her readers, that we are entrusted with such a complicated realization. There are suggestions of Yeats' widening gyre in this plotline, and one wonders whether the Fleet's center will be able to hold or if the blood-dimmed tide is yet to be loosed. This volume leaves that question unresolved, a powder keg still waiting its spark.
One other facet of Dellamonica's worldbuilding stands out here: Stormwrack's magic. In the first book, we are introduced to the glowing lines of scrip, the importance of keeping secret your full name, the far-reaching power and especially the manifest weight of magic. There is no sophomore slump in this sequel, as we learn both more about how magic is conducted and just what it is capable of doing: in one scene on ship in a storm, a giant doll in the sky thrusts needles through a live sheep to draw out its sinews, then rains the missiles on the ship like a nightmarish sewing machine. Not all scripping is so disturbing, however: it is a tool, and we see it used to save lives from illness, to transfuse blood, to create improbable ships, to modify bodies . . . This is another well to plumb, much like the politics of the Fleet and the ecosystems of Stormwrack, and one which Dellamonica avoids the easy temptation to over-explain. There is just enough to satisfy, while more is hinted to keep readers speculating.
If I have one complaint about the book, it's one which only appeared upon reflection after turning the final page: in all the wonder and discovery, the mystery and danger, the joy of this new world—we don't have much of an engaging plotline here. I didn't care overmuch whether the Sylvanners are lying about the turtles or whether the Havershamites caused the stranglevine infestation; I wasn't that interested in whether Sophie can eke out a family from her disturbing mother and quite possibly disturbed father and thereby prevent a war; and I felt little personal interest in whether Sophie's cousin Verena can solve the mystery of the marooned girl without Sophie's help and prove herself as their aunt's heir. This is not something that bothered me while reading the book, because, like Sophie, I was happy to be back on Stormwrack and learning about its fascinating environment and peoples. Like many readers, I eagerly await the next installment; I just also hope it offers more of a story to keep the magic that is Stormwrack from waning.
A. S. Moser is a writer currently living in Hong Kong. His current project is a science fiction novel about death, hacking, and Dylan Thomas. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.