Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica joins the list of fantasy novels whose portrayal of science and scientists outstrips anything I have seen from recent science fiction. The heroine of this novel, Sophie Hansa, is no B-movie stereotype. She reminds me of the real-life scientists whose work I have adored. Her passion for the natural world, for truth, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake overcame the problems that I had with the rest of her characterization. Child of a Hidden Sea is a fantasy story about a young woman who is dropped into a magical world, but it is also a story about how one woman's drive to understand the world proves to be more powerful than any threat of violence or treachery.
Sophie Hansa was adopted by the American equivalent of aristocracy: rich San Franciscans who can afford to send her to grad school, dive school, sailing around the world, or anything else she desires. Nevertheless, Sophie longs to answer the question that lurks at the beginning of her life story: who were her birth parents, and why won't anyone talk about them? When her parents jet off to vacation in Europe, she talks her way into their safe deposit box. Always impulsive, she quickly finds herself confronting her birth mother—who calls her a viper and insists that Sophie will destroy her family. After having that door slammed in her face, before she can recover, Sophie witnesses several men attacking the woman that she suspects is her aunt. Rushing to intervene, she finds herself picked up and tossed into a dark and stormy sea. This, then, is her introduction to the world of Stormwrack.
I will admit to picking up this book primarily for the setting. I have adored island-worlds ever since I read Earthsea as a child. In this respect, Child of a Hidden Sea does not disappoint. The power of the ocean leaves its mark on every inhabitant of Stormwrack, from the meanest fisherman to the most pampered aristocrat. The first people that Sophie encounters live by subsistence fishing. Immediately after arriving, her presence endangers their lives. Not only do they risk their lives to save her, but the storm that Sophie's enemies send to kill her disrupts the fishermen's catch. The loss of one important catch puts the entire community at risk of starvation—something that Sophie cannot help but notice, as she watches painfully skinny children scouring the beach for anything edible that might wash up. Even when Sophie finds her wealthy, ruling-class family, they are still intimately tied to the sea. A major part of her inheritance includes not only a sailing ship, but also its crew.
Fortunately for Sophie, she has spent plenty of time on the sea. She understands currents and tides, freediving, and water rescue—something that comes in handy right away, as she drags her injured aunt's body through the waves. As she does so, her scientific instincts kick in. She immediately begins to analyze the water, the stars, and the animals around her for clues as to where she has fallen.
I came to this book expecting a swashbuckling adventure. I partially blame my own expectations for how dull I found the middle of Child of a Hidden Sea. In retrospect, I see what Dellamonica was doing. The portal fantasy has many advantages. First and foremost, it offers the reader a familiar perspective in an alien world. It allows our heroine to ask the stupid questions without being stupid. However, portal fantasy also has its pitfalls. One of my least favorite is the training montage. Dellamonica has imagined a world in which a class of warrior-lawyers spend their whole lives training to duel one another. It would be ridiculous for Sophie, whose primary weapon up until this point has been the waterproof camera case, to pick up a sword and be able to compete with them. No matter how long a twenty-first century heroine has spent pounding the rattan in the SCA, no training montage will make her a match for people whose combat skills have been a matter of life or death since they were old enough to hold a weapon.
Dellamonica avoids the training montage trap by staying true to her heroine's character. Sophie is not a warrior. Sophie refuses to be a warrior. As a scientist, the idea of solving her problems with brute force is abhorrent to her. By the end of the book, Sophie's pacifism was my favorite thing about her.
In other ways, I found Sophie difficult to relate to. She goes from being a fabulously rich Californian to being a literal princess from a magical world. During one of her trips home, she fills her backpack with high-tech gear (and lots of batteries) by "maxing out the credit cards" (p. 21). She talks about defending her thesis, but she is obviously not the kind of graduate student who is worried about paying off her student loans. She barges around Stormwrack, confident that people will listen to her and take her seriously. I sometimes wished that one of the other characters would fling themselves bodily into her path and demand that she stop interfering in other people's lives. I find it hard to relate to characters who find themselves blessed with money and power through an accident of birth. Only Sophie's dedication to science, her insistence on standing up to powerful people, and answering brute force with her intellect rather than with violence, pulled her character through for me.
Child of a Hidden Sea has an ineffable quality that I associate with young adult fiction. I wish I could pin down exactly what I meant by that. Possibly it was the extremely close point of view, which might as well have been first person. Possibly it was Dellamonica's workmanlike prose. Child of a Hidden Sea is not here to indulge in stunt writing. It is here to tell a story. While Dellamonica creates many arresting images—her industrious sea otters, the variety of ships in the great floating United Nations called the Fleet, or a duel between a swordswoman and a man wreathed in magical fire—her prose is only as complicated as it needs to be to get her point across. I find this kind of writing a bit dull, but I expect that many readers will find it refreshing.
I worry that Child of a Hidden Sea will suffer from readers who, like me, went in to the book with the wrong set of expectations. Again, this is not primarily a novel about swashbuckling adventure. If, like me, you are tempted to give up halfway through, please don't—you will be rewarded with a punch-the-air ending that will make the rest of the book light up with meaning. Child of a Hidden Sea is the story of Sophie's unending quest for the truth—about herself, about the natural world, and about the machinations of pirates and politicians who would happily destroy her.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.