That’s right folks, this week on the blog, you get not one but two reviews! These are both books I read in the spring and have meant to review for ages, and both feature seas and ships – though as you’ll see, the combination is approached very differently by each.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publication date: February 2 2016
Genre: historical fiction
Salt to the Sea weaves together multiple alternating viewpoints as the lives of four teenagers – Florian, Joana, Emilia and Alfred – briefly converge during one of the most catastrophic moments in maritime history: the boarding of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 off the coast of what is now Poland. Florian and Joana are stand-out characters, their courage and instinct for survival also yielding tremendous acts of kindness and companionship.
Serious, sombre and gut-wrenching, Salt to the Sea is hugely indicative of the skill of an author who has honed a talent for weaving little-known histories into novels ideal for YA and adult audiences alike. It’s the story of characters who’ve had to leave everything they’ve ever known behind, with much of the book taking place on their journey to what seems like a last chance for sanctuary. The prose is distinctive and fairly sparse, but it’s a compelling read.
Ruta Sepetys is a writer who can take what is essentially the typical, predictable set-up of her genre – telling the story of fictional, though plausible, characters facing individual and collective struggles against the backdrop of historical, and in this case, harrowing events – and prove that it’s still worth reading; that there are still myriad tales to be reworked from history, even in periods we’ve seen explored before. The story told in Salt to the Sea doesn’t even remotely appear on this list of historical fiction I’d love to see, but Sepetys continues to surprise with her ability to draw readers in to her subjects of choice. The book’s short chapters and tough topics mean it absolutely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the depth of her research shines from the page.
For fans of Elizabeth Wein, Sarah Crossan and Jennifer Donnelly, Salt to the Sea is a well-researched, incredibly sombre and often moving novel which expertly twines historical events with distinct, vocal teenage characters.
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 3 March 2016
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi(ish)
The Girl from Everywhere caught my eye because of its premise: a swashbuckling tale featuring the motley crew of a time-travelling ship and a girl with the world at her feet and a whole menagerie of magical creatures and mythology at her fingertips? It sounded like a slam dunk read. Even the title and cover conjured up images of beautiful prose, luxurious detail and fantastical landscapes; storm-tossed seas, old maps, the creak of magnificent ships plunging from one world to another. I wanted spectacular fantasy, full of sweeping adventure. Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential.
There are so many extraordinary things in this book’s world – pristine beaches, mystic creatures, exciting adventures – yet the writing does justice to none of them. To say this book disappoints is an understatement: it was published amid a torrent of hype, and as is so often the case, it was not worth that hype at all. The prose is brash and forced. Key details are mentioned as brusque asides. The book squanders its possibilities on secondary plots and one-dimensional characters, and the resulting story is unengaging.
At one point I actually wondered if I’d missed out several early chapters, but no, it’s just a book with totally inexplicable pacing. Maybe it would have worked if readers had any time to get to know the characters, instead of being flung abruptly into unexplained chase sequences and scenes which are probably supposed to have some kind of great significance but which flounder in a writing style that seems to reject meaningful description from the outset. I wanted to like protagonist Nix, but the writing style never allows for her character to be endeared to the reader. I liked Kashmir, but the rest of the cast fall flat: in trying to be all things to all readers, they end up lacking any depth. Later improvements in the book’s details and style are too little, too late: there’s no emotional resonance, no breath-taking descriptions or any real sense of thrill. Throw in underutilized dragons (I really do not like underutilisation of dragons), an out-of-the-blue love triangle and a plot which initially intrigues but lapses into predictability, and The Girl from Everywhere is, to put it mildly, a let-down.
I’m a fairly generous reviewer, but I just wouldn’t recommend this one. Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo are still your best bet for sprawling YA fantasy, or if you’re specifically looking for a take on magic and maps, look to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars.