Fiction Reviews

Sea of Ghosts

(2011) Alan Campbell, Tor, 16.99, hrdbk, 431pp, ISBN 978-0-230-74294-9


Campbell made a bit of a name for himself with the remarkable Deepgate Codex, a dark, gothic horror of a trilogy, rich in religious and mythic imagery, endlessly imaginative and written with real flair but, it's fair to say, one that fizzled out at the end as if that particular vein was tapped-out and he just wasn't sure how to end it. Still, cream always rises to the top so I was very excited when Sea of Ghosts plopped onto the doormat and even more excited when I saw the cover - it really does just scream "read me!" at the top of its voice.

Colonel Thomas Granger leads the last of the Gravediggers, an elite imperial infiltration unit. A grizzled war veteran and hardened survivor, he thinks little of the Emperor and even less of his treatment of the army, so it takes only slight provocation for him to insult the cowardly fop in such a way that the remaining unit have to disband and take refuge to save their lives from reprisals. Granger ends up as a jailer in Ethugra, a flooded city of island prisons surrounded by the poisoned Unmer Sea, but his quiet life ends when he takes delivery of two new prisoners and his past floods back to haunt him.

One of them, Ianthe, is a young girl with a unique psychic talent that she is hiding from the world, one that the the sisterhood of psychics known as the Haurstaf, who hold the warring factions in the world to ransom by renting out their talents, would dearly love to possess. But there are other, nastier people who covet her talents and who aim make Ianthe their own, so now it's up to Granger, probably the only man alive who cares enough, to try and save her.

This is an enormous turnabout for Campbell, where The Deepgate Codex was claustophobic, dark and forbidding, this is wide open, brash and explosive. Where the last required some hard but rewarding work to get past the mass of characters and multiple points of view, this is the story - almost - of one man, Granger, and I have to say the simplicity and easy reading make it fly along at a ready clip. But fans will be glad to know that none of this is at the expense of quality world building, something that Deepgate had in spades and so does Sea of Ghosts. Rich, detailed, vibrant and totally unlike anything that you've read before, the setting comes across as a heavily steampunked Bioshock laden down with bizarre weaponry, strange ships, telepaths, magic, strange contraptions, weird science, poisoned seas and even a mechanical dragon.

The characters too are nicely drawn, maybe slightly less complex than his previous offering but certainly easy to warm to and root for with - for now at least - very definite good guys and bad guys which makes the story zing along. Don't misunderstand me though, there are dark moments in the book. Torture, misogyny, slavery and cold-blooded killing all feature but the sheer bravado of the story telling saves you from too much wincing and sharp intakes of breath.

As I write this it's only February and already I've earmarked it as one of the books of the year. If there's any justice in the world then Sea of Ghosts will break Campbell out into the premiere league of UK fantasy writers, it's endlessly imaginative and impressively ambitious, but it's also a hugely fun adventure story that keeps up a relentless pace, leaving you with a cliff-hanger ending that will have you gasping for the next book in double-quick time.

Robert Grant

This review was first published at SCI-FI-LONDON.

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