First in Alan Campbell’s new Gravedigger Chronicles, Sea of Ghosts is a mix of different genres. The novel starts as an adventurous work of low fantasy with steampunk elements, but soon moves into completely new territories of paranormal and even epic fantasy, with scientific elements that expand to make this novel resemble something I can only describe as ‘epic science fantasy’. All the while, Sea of Ghosts reads like a marine adventure written by Clive Cussler.
Dragons, zombies, and lost civilizations
Set in a dystopian world that feels like a combination of Arabic and ancient Japanese cultures, Sea of Ghosts offers a multitude of intriguing elements woven together into an enthralling story. This is a story of old magic and lost civilizations drowned at the bottom of an ocean poisoned during a war long past, of technological, steampunk-esque rediscoveries, and of dragons and zombie-like creatures at the sea floor called the Drowned.
During the aforementioned war long past, the Unmer, old rulers of this world, were imprisoned by the Haurstaf, a group of modern psychic witches. Humans, previously enslaved by the Unmer, were released to rule the world, while the Unmer civilization drowned under the seas that they themselves poisoned as a last desperate strike in the war.
This is the story of Colonel Granger, leader of an elite imperial infiltration unit called the Gravediggers. When his unit is disbanded and hunted by the emperor it once served, Granger flees overseas to a new life. Years later, this life suddenly changes forever when he encounters a very special girl who turns out to be his daughter – and who a lot of people are after for her extraordinary abilities.
Darkness and suspense
Sea of Ghosts’s two biggest strengths are its atmosphere and suspense. Campbell has created a world that pulls the reader in at once. This world seems simple at first, but it is slowly revealed to have a depth to fit any epic series with mysteries around every corner and a rich, intriguing history. This world, combined with the dark, degrading atmosphere, is enough the engage the reader.
The other strength, the suspense, is even more evident, though it starts off slowly – during the first seventy pages, I often wanted to stop reading. If you find yourself in a similar situation, keep reading because it will be worth it. The story soon develops into a page-turner in the truest sense of the word. Halfway into the book I simply couldn’t stop reading. My heart raced and as I approached the ending with events following each other at a breathtaking speed, the last pages left me trembling.
A thin plot and questionable characters
For some reason, though, the plot left me wanting. Because of the slow start – caused by a big amount of character history leading up to the main plot – I believe the book would have benefited from starting seventy pages into the story. Besides that, the plot is pretty thin at times. Protagonists occasionally face dilemmas in spite of the easy way out, which Campbell conveniently ignores. For example, in one instance a magical bottle of poison kills a group of soldiers when the soldiers simply could have shattered the bottle to stop the poison.
The characters, too, are shallow. Though there are some great characters like Creedy, a member of the Gravediggers, or Ianthe, Granger’s gifted daughter, other characters have nothing to distinguish them as individuals.
An intelligent read
These flaws aside, though, Sea of Ghosts is definitely an amazing work of fantasy. I was especially intrigued by the ending that manages both to tie up the main storylines and to leave many minor storylines – with the potential to have a great impact on future installments – open. While at first the book feels simple and poorly thought out, small details that I dismissed earlier turn out to have a huge impact on the story, proving Campbell to be a true master of foreshadowing. Sea of Ghosts is an intelligent read that slowly introduces you to its world and sucks you in when you don’t expect it.
Why should you read this book?
There are many reasons to read Sea of Ghosts. If you enjoy any of the genres I mentioned in my introduction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Though it isn’t without flaws, its suspense will grip any reader and will leave you wanting more. The Gravedigger Chronicles promises to be a fantasy series worth keeping an eye on.
Stephan received a review copy of this book courtesy of Pan Macmillan.