The Coldest Sea
When recently jilted Maggie Juell takes passage on Captain Vinsen Solarcis’s ship, she expects a brief journey to her new post teaching music. She does not expect to find the captain isolated and unengaged with his crew – nor does she expect him to be quite so good-looking. The arrival of a castaway spinning implausible tales about a shipwreck on an iceberg sends the ship off on a rescue mission they know may be a trap – and into the face of magic none of them has ever seen before. The Coldest Sea is a well-written, engaging fantasy romance with a plot that kept me turning pages until well past the time I’d meant to go to bed. I recommend it highly to fellow fantasy readers.
This book joins author Perera’s Eden series, but it works well as a standalone for those of us who haven’t read the others in the series. Eden is a well-developed and interesting setting consisting of many islands with distinctive kingdoms strung across them. Vinsen and Maggie are from Denalay, which is a seafaring nation of minimal magic, and their castaway is from closed, chilly Bleakhaven. Each culture has its own theology, sometimes magical and sometimes not, and its own norms. I found the world richly developed and look forward to visiting it again in one of the other books.
Moreover, as in the best fantasies, the setting was completely integrated with the plot. I learned about the iceberg and the Bleakhaveners alongside the protagonists, which was much more fun than an infodump and kept the narrative tense. Nearly every turning point in the book felt unexpected, because everybody, including me, was learning. My only plot complaint was that by the time the protagonists fought the ultimate enemy directly, we had already been shown that this enemy was incredibly powerful – so much so that I didn’t think the protagonists had a chance of winning. Yes, the final fight took place after a handicap to the enemy, but it didn’t feel like enough to have allowed them to go toe-to-toe.
Because I can’t stand it when authors stuff their books with previous protagonists turned into happy-ever-after-bots, I was delighted that this book stands alone. I could tell based on a reference to Maggie’s brother and his wife that there had been at least one previous book, but when I checked the author’s web site, I was stunned to find that there are four. Most authors I’ve read lately would have tried to cram in at least two more cameos.
With an engaging setting and a page-turning plot, the book does shortchange the romance a bit. Their attraction is fast, with Vinsen falling in love quickly with Maggie and Maggie at least feeling chemistry right away as well. I appreciated that the author let Maggie be sexual without being in love, or at least without admitting to herself that she was. Still, after the first few chapters, most of their romance scenes are worked around “rest” moments in the breakneck plot, and it felt sometimes like “Ok, the fight isn’t happening for a few hours – let’s squeeze in some heartfelt conversation while we wait.” Sometimes that works (impending doom can prompt soul-searching) but other times it felt forced.
I also had some issues with the high body count and the characters’ reactions to it. Vinsen, who had lost a crew before the book starts, is very affected by the loss of his sailors in this book, but nobody else seems to be. The crew doesn’t mourn each other; Maggie doesn’t feel shocked by her first forays into combat and death; at one point, a man who has killed a number of Vinsen’s crew decides to become an ally at whiplash speed and is accepted just as rapidly. It’s disorienting and odd.
Perera is a strong writer, and she knows how to turn a phrase: Vinsen met Maggie as a preteen “between the schoolroom and the dance floor,” while Maggie ruefully comments on her appearance: “Everything about her was long – long face, long fingers – long legs – except for her hair. That should have been long, so it had turned out wide instead.” The only scenes which felt poorly written were the fight scenes. The author must be very visual, because they were narrated so precisely that they could have been the storyboards for a director filming the sequence. In text, it feels clunky. The action bogs down in descriptions of which hand the knife has been switched to, or, which shoulder the fighter is looking over and how his or her balance is affected by this move.
On the whole, though, The Coldest Sea is a fantasy romance success. It has consistent, complex, and original worldbuilding, two solid (if not legendary) protagonists, and a strong author voice. I truly enjoyed it.