Review: The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother–The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper–has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.

But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.

To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.

Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything–ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun–to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Firstly, The Forever Sea has already secured itself a place on my hypothetical ‘top covers of 2021’ list…. and 2021 hasn’t even started yet. It drew me in right from the start with its bright colours and then got me intrigued… sailing ships are on the covers of nautical fantasy everywhere, except wait, that’s grass.

The creativity and boldness of the cover thankfully carried over into the world-building, which was by far my favourite thing about this book. It’s a little too grounded to be classified as ‘weird fiction’, but there’s that same sense of a completely alien world that’s impossible to imagine juxtaposed anywhere on earth. The descriptions of the dense, lucious grasses and the crackling, spluttering hearthfires in the centre of the ships were vivid, and I felt the wonder that Kindred experienced every time she contemplated the Forever Sea, but I could also sense the unknown dangers that kept others in Kindred’s crew on edge. This is truly an epic environmental fantasy: there is a clear message about adapting one’s way of life to the local habitat, and everything in this story – the foods the characters eat, the materials their homes are built from, even the way they regulate their exercise and movements due to lack of water – is influenced by the fact that they are literally floating on a giant sea of grass.

Energy was a luxury. There were no fights, no drunken brawls in poorly lit alleys. Such anger required blood singing with water. Rage was for the rich and not to be wasted.

There’s also a hint of magic in this book – Kindred is responsible for tending to the hearthfires that power ships across the Forever Sea. These fires use bones to fuel them – a mystery I’m keen to learn more about in the sequels, since little is known about the process of harvesting these bones from their willing donors – and while anyone can learn to tend the fire, very few people can hear the fire singing to them, telling them what it needs, and Kindred is more adept than most. I get the sense there’s a lot more to play out on this front in the coming books.

And, of course, there is also a very clear message about environmental degradation. The Forever Sea is starting to die due to over-harvesting, forcing people to venture further and further from their homes in source of materials and creating a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction, while water scarcity is leading people to more and more desperate acts. I would have liked to have seen more of the politics surrounding these issues: the war over water often took a back seat to the story about Kindred’s affinity for the hearthfire and the grassy seas, and it wasn’t always clear who the key players were or what tipping point had lead them down this path.

As for the rest of the book: the characters are well-rounded, particularly Kindred, her love interest Sarah, and the Captain of their crew. I did struggle to like Kindred as much as I wanted to, though I expect that will be a matter of personal preference: she’s incredibly instinct-driven, often to the point of recklessness, and her actions have consequences that can be devastating for the crew. Even when I understood her motivations, she was a little too headstrong for me. The romance between Kindred and Sarah is sweet, but felt a little rushed – we learn early on that Kindred has a giant crush – but we never really see the pair interact before they’re falling headfirst into romance. It was also great to see a story where all the key roles on a ship are taken by queer women, and this is clearly unremarkable.

My main criticism is that this book needed a judicious pruning (sorry, not sorry). The story at times feels bloated, as the same messages about Kindred knowing the sea better than anyone are hammered home repeatedly. At points, there’s a little too much waxing lyrically about the beauty of the sea, and not enough time spent getting on with the plot. That feels like a fairly minor complaint given how much I loved learning about this world, but I did have to drag myself through some of the middle of third of this book, and resented retreading old ground. There’s also some gaps in the plot – nothing that ruined the story for me – but a lot the events that take place once Kindred and crew reach the Once City come seemingly out of nowhere, and aren’t really integrated well into the rest of the story.

Overall, however, this book is incredibly unique and daring in its approach to world-building, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW in exchange for a review. The Forever Sea will be released on 19 January 2021.

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