This book came recommended by my friend Annette over at The Stars Are Not Made of Fire, who knows the author through her writing group. She told me the book went unexpected places, and I have to agree.
When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen. Farrar Straus Giroux 2012.
Felicita is a teen heiress, younger sister to the man who rules a major port city in a world with a late-19th century feel. The ruling class rules because of the magic it controls, a genetic magic that’s only activated when members of the magic-bearing aristocracy take scriv, a very expensive and highly addictive powder. But though Felicita is given enough scriv to become addicted, she’s never given enough to do anything really powerful, nor is she trained to use her magic. Among the upper class, women are valued only as brides and mothers of male heirs.
Felicita had hoped to go to university for at least a couple of years, but when her best friend commits suicide after an unwanted engagement, Felicita’s mother and older brother decide to marry her off instead. Something snaps, and Felicita fakes her own suicide, running away to the dock-side slums and dying her tell-tale naturally red hair a doxy-bright red to cover it up. In the slums, she falls in with a group of young revolutionaries, led by the handsome and charismatic hob Dash. For the first time in her life, she’s working for a living, washing dishes at a tea house frequented by poets. She’s also being courted both by Dash and by a young vampire, Jannik, who knows who she is and who bonds with her over their mutual family difficulties. Vampire society is the mirror image of the aristocrats, with queens ruling the hive and young males considered disposable.
While Felicita is engaged in self-discovery, things in the larger world are not going well. Her friend’s suicide seems to have called a dark magic from the sea, one that threatens to bring up a red tide that’s dangerous both to marine life and to the people who make their living from the sea. Public sentiment, too, is rising against the ruling aristocracy – Felicita’s family. Very soon, Felicita will have to choose between her family and her new friends.
I was very impressed with Hellisen’s work here, putting some common teen elements together into something quite unexpected. This is complex, layered, and thoughtful in a way that made it very hard to put down. Felicita may be sheltered and ignorant of life outside of her circle, but she works hard to keep her head. Even the two men that could have felt like just another love triangle – it didn’t even register as a love triangle to me until after the fact. There was so much going on that I now want to go back and re-read, just to see what I might have missed the first time around. This is one for teens and up, with plenty of appeal even for adults who (unlike me) don’t normally go for YA.
This felt like a fine stand-alone novel, but looking it up, I see that a sequel, House of Sand and Secret was just published last month, in ebook only.