The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the debut novel from an author who, as far as I can tell, has only one previous publishing credit: a short story in 2016. That's quite a leap to this full-length novel, which has a minimum of first-novel problems and a whole lot of terrifically inventive worldbuilding and characterization.
This is a fantasy set on a world that instead of having water oceans, has oceans of grass and other plants: the titular Forever Sea, where ships that sail the green waves are kept aloft by their magical "hearthfires." Kindred Greyreach is a hearthfire keeper aboard The Errant, and as the book opens she and her ship and crew are on the run from pirates, trying to reach their home port of Arcadia.
Kindred is the protagonist and viewpoint character, but the Forever Sea is a fully realized character in its own right. The author uses wonderfully evocative language that paints a lovely picture of the various plants and grasses that make up the Forever Sea, from the tiny flowers The Errant harvests to the tree trunks of the floating Once-City, tree trunks as broad as the ship Kindred sails upon. Beasts live in this grassy ocean as well, giant wyrms and other things--we see the first in an exciting, suspenseful battle where a wyrm and its parasitic vines drag the ship under the surface, and Kindred has to use her hearthfire magic to break free and save her ship and crew.
I don't know if I've ever read a fantasy world quite like this one. With its wealth of small and well-thought-out details, it feels real and lived in. This depth of worldbuilding is also matched by some good characterization, particularly of Kindred and her crewmates aboard The Errant. Kindred's journey is about finding her place in this world, and coming to fully appreciate her grandmother, the famed captain the Marchess, who Kindred fought with and left behind two years previously to join the crew of The Errant. But the Marchess has died....or has she? Kindred's former crewmates tell a tale of the Marchess sailing her ship to the wild areas of the Forever Sea, known as the Roughs, and stepping right off the deck and walking across the grasses, to vanish into the depths below. She has gone to explore, to plumb the depths of the Forever Sea right down to the fabled tales of people who live at the bottom. At the end of the book Kindred leaves The Errant behind, diving in a woven grass submarine to join her.
There is also a very interesting frame to the book as a whole, as it is a tale being told by "the Storyteller," who travels from camp to camp relating the same story over and over again: Kindred's story. This apparently takes place some decades or even centuries after Kindred's time, and we are told that the Forever Sea has changed: it has become overgrown, mysterious and dangerous, and the previous civilization of Arcadia and the Mainland is gone. This sets quite the stage for the next book.
This book does have a few first-novel pacing problems, but for the most part it's an impressive, absorbing story. It's well worth seeking out.
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