Kelly Armstrong’s Sea of Shadows is a very refreshing young adult fantasy featuring great characterization, a relatively unique setting, very well done romance, and an intriguing storyline.
The story has two main characters, the twin sisters Ashyn and Moria. They have been given two very important roles in their village. Ashyn is the Seeker. It is her duty to find the spirits of the dead and lay them to rest. Moria is the Keeper of the village. It is her duty to guard the village and to make sure the Empire is never overtaken. However, just as Ashyn is undertaking her duties for the first time, an army of spirits of the dammed are released and accompanied by a thief named Ronan and a mysterious member of the warrior cast named Gavril Kitsune. They flee to warn the Emperor.
The setting of the book is relatively unusual for a medieval fantasy. The Empire that all of the characters belong to has a very interesting caste system, with people of different castes not being allowed to participate in other castes’ activities. For example, no one but the warrior caste is allowed to wield a weapon, the only exception to this being the Keeper and the Seeker. The Empire itself is unusual for a young adult fantasy setting in its moral ambiguity. On one hand, it provides protection from the spirits around them and the other enemy nations while on the other hand both the system and the way it is enforced can be very harsh. For example, the twins’ mother was killed for trying to hide what they were from the government. It is also somewhat complicit in the dammed spirits existence. People who have committed crimes, including relatively minor ones like theft, are sent to the Forest of the Dammed where if they die they are likely to rise as angry spirits. If they can survive the winter they are allowed to leave, but they are just as likely to become infected by the spirits and as a result the majority of them are killed. The tensions between the various castes are also explored. For example, the area’s arrogant governor feels undermined by the two girls’ power and tries to cause them trouble early in the book.
The book is a very quick read despite being a bit longer than the average young adult novel. The earlier chapters have a lot of set up and world building, but the world and characters and setting are interesting enough to keep the reader engaged. Then as the spirits are unleashed the pace quickens considerably. The book is very difficult to put down.
The two main characters are also the viewpoint characters. The two characters are frequently split up and as a result the reader spends a great deal of time with one of them before focusing on the other. This is often done with the use of a cliff-hanger which requires the other sister’s help. This can be slightly frustrating at times, but fortunately both sisters are compelling enough that the audience is quickly pulled into the story of whoever the current viewpoint character is.
One of the greatest strengths of this story is its characters and Ashyn and Moria are two of the best. The two sisters are very different. Ashyn is in many ways very idealistic and naïve, but is also very determined empathetic. It is easy to see why she has the duty of looking after the dead souls. She is very kind and empathetic and is also the more diplomatic of the two sisters, often doing a very good job of defusing potentially dangerous situations. On the other hand, she is much less capable as a fighter than her sister, and her idealism can at times sabotage her. Moria is a little more cynical since her duties often have more to do with protecting the village and she has more often dealt with the villagers’ problems. As a result she has seen a bit more of humanity’s dark side than her sister and is more cynical. This does not mean that she is not noble or compassionate; she has both of those traits in spades. However, her solutions are often less diplomatic and also more likely to break the rules. For example, early in the story there is a very brief line of dialogue that suggests she sometimes gives her knife to abused wives so they can defend themselves. This shows that she is still very compassionate, but also has a harder edge than her gentler sister.
But the element of the storytelling that really makes them both work as main characters is the fact that neither character is shown to be wrong for being who they are. For example, there is a scene later in the book where they are talking about their respective love interests. Moria who is more interested in casual sexual relationships that won’t get in the way of her duties, says that she can’t enter a relationship with Gavril because she respects him too much. The more romantically inclined Ashyn says that respect is the most important part of a relationship. Moria tells her “you keep your notions of romance and I’ll keep mine.” Now since there is a powerful element of romance in the books it is likely that by the end of the series her opinion will have changed, but what is important here is that the narrative does not judge her for her belief. A lot of series would have one of the sisters be shown in a negative light to make the other one look better, but this story doesn’t. Both sisters are good people; they are just good people in different ways.
Two other very important characters are, of course, the love interests. I personally have read a lot of very good young adult fiction with very lacklustre romance plots. Most frequently, I have seen a lot of books that try to create a very artificial love triangle where one of the men is completely unlikable and nasty, while the other one is written to be seen as nice, but instead comes off dull and lifeless. Fortunately, Armstrong’s novel creates a much fresher romance for both of the main characters. Both of the love interests have a number of negative traits, but also are likable and in very different ways. Gavril Kitsune is a disgraced member of the warrior caste who is highly critical of Moria. He is capable of being extremely bullheaded and stubborn, but is also very honorable and noble. He and Moria slowly but surely develop mutual respect over the course of the book. Part of what makes them so compelling together is the fact that despite taking her duties very seriously Moria can appear roguish and can sometimes bend the rules in order to do the right thing, while Gavril is a very strict and rules oriented person despite the fact that he is from a disgraced family and she has what is ultimately a very respected position in the Empire. Ronan is a thief who is trying to provide for his family. He is roguish, somewhat untrustworthy and occasionally even selfish, but he is also charming, resourceful, fiercely loyal and surprisingly romantic. He is much more cynical and experienced than Ashyn is and teaches her many of the ways he has learned to survive. In turn, she brings out a much braver and nobler side to his character. The relationship is reciprocal with both characters learning and growing with each other. It is both very romantic and a breath of fresh air.
The book is also very emotionally powerful. I have already talked at length about how well the romance works. Another emotion that is present in many areas is fear. The spirits are very frightening. A particular reason for this is in the way they twist normal people into tools for their anger and wrath. In some cases the characters have to face people they care about who have become dangerous and bestial. Another major character who brings this emotion is the sadistic mercenary commander Barthol who works for the mysterious villain. Of the villains he and his band are the only human ones to appear with the main villain remaining in shadows. He holds a village hostage and uses the main characters’ empathy to keep them prisoner. He is very calm and calculating, but at the same time clearly enjoys the power his heinous actions give over the heroines. The book combines fantasy tropes and those of horror very effectively.
Sea Of Shadows is a very refreshing fantasy story that avoids many of the problems typical both in fantasy and in the YA market. It has very well developed characters, an interesting setting, and a plot with more than a few twists and turns. It is highly recommended and I will be looking forward to its sequels.