Today I am delighted to be reviewing ‘The Forever Sea’ the debut novel from Joshua Phillip Johnson, a beautiful book that caught me by surprise with just how much I loved it and is out now.
Disclaimer – I received an e-arc via netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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.
There is no other way to start this review off than with that stunning cover. It’s absolutely beautiful, and from the moment I say it, I knew that I wanted to read this book. I love ships, the colours had me…and it was a ship on a sea of grass…what more do I need to say?
Even more importantly the book is just as beautiful inside, both in terms of the worldbuilding and the writing.
The worldbuilding is my favourite part of the book, and this has to be one of the most beautifully crafted and imagined worlds I’ve read. From the cover image of a ship sailing on grass, we know that this a different world, and Johnson takes you and launches into this strange new world. A world of limited water, with an endless grass sea, where ships are powered by magical hearthfires and fed by bones. What I loved was how the world wasn’t just a beautiful backdrop, but an intrinsic part of the fantasy because everything in this world was interwoven, and I enjoyed seeing how the people of the world had adapted to this environment – from what they ate, materials used, and how they lived their life. In a world where we are used to living and working against the environment often, this was refreshing to see.
It also fed very much into the fact there was a strong environmental message throughout the book, another reason why The Forever Sea appealed to me from the beginning. The exploration of environmental degradation through The Forever sea, with over-harvesting and forcing people to travel further and further in search of materials, perpetuating the issue, and the ongoing water scarcity is both painfully real, and important to discuss, and the strangeness of this world doesn’t take away from that. I would like to have seen more of the issues that stemmed from this, such as the conflict over water and the different sides, as it felt that particular aspect was lost a little beneath Kindred’s story – but this is the first book in the series, and it doesn’t detract from the message being given here. What, I also enjoyed was that while the message was clear, it didn’t fall into the trap of being preached to us, because it was such an intrinsic part of the world and story, and I found it more powerful because of that.
In terms of ‘magic’, I am both intrigued and left wanting more. The hearthfires that power the ships across the Forever Sea, use bones as fuel, but I feel as though there is a lot we don’t know about that process, especially when it comes to the harvesting of the bones. However, I loved the idea that while these fires could be tended by anyone, they sang for those who could hear them, and while it wasn’t necessarily the most overt magic system, there was something beautiful about that imagery and I look forward to learning more in future books.
I will say that for me the worldbuilding completely stole the show, as I loved it and was immediately drawn into the world, and I loved the allusion to parts of the world we hadn’t yet seen, and the use of myths and legends, and storytelling to add breadth and depth to the world. I particularly enjoyed how that aspect was used to frame the story, with the arrival of the storyteller at the beginning, and I knew from that moment that I was going to enjoy this book… just not how much.
The characters are well-written, and while it took me a little while to take to Kindred, she was a fantastic character if a little too reckless and headstrong at times. Yet, we could understand her motivations, and see what drove her, which made it easier to emphasize with her as we went on, and she is the kind of character that creeps into your heart and you find yourself liking her before you realise what is happening. The crew of her ship were a fascinating bunch, each of the well-realised from Sarah, to Little Wing and the Captain, and there is a sense of growth and change throughout the book, as well as tension, and they each breathed something new into the story. I also enjoyed the developing relationship between Sarah and Kindred, although there were a few places where it felt a little too rushed, but that I think is more down to personal preference than anything else.
As I mentioned above, I loved the writing, Johnson’s prose was beautiful, and a perfect match for the world and story that he was weaving. However, there were a few places here and there where the writing was perhaps a little weaker than the rest of the book, there were a few bits that felt a little repetitive, and the pacing occasionally was a little off – torn between the fast-paced events, and slower internal reflection that wasn’t as balanced as they could have been. That said, I could have quite happily stayed in this world and kept reading for a lot longer, and in a book that has offered such a wonderful cast of characters, a world that is unique and took my breath away with its creativity and has pirates… it is little more than a minor grumble.
This is a very strong debut and the first book in a series that set out to do something different and has more than done so, creating one of the most unique, imaginative worlds I have had the pleasure of diving into. I would highly recommend The Forever Sea, and I can’t wait to see where Kindred and the author take us next.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.