THE FOREVER SEA by Joshua Phillip Johnson (BOOK REVIEW)
“Kindred closed her eyes into the prairie wind, feeling it’s familiar whisper against her cheek, neck, eyelids. The low-slung slant of late-afternoon light might have grown too warm, but the wind tempered it until Kindred’s face felt perfectly warmed, perfectly cooled.”
Joshua Johnson’s debut The Forever Sea immediately caught my eye after seeing the vibrant and quite magical cover art on both the US and UK editions. The multicoloured grass and the ship sailing upon it immediately caught my eye and lured me into finding out exactly what this tale was all about.
The world of The Forever Sea has to be one of the most ingenious and completely mesmerising fantasy worlds I’ve come across. The island of Arcadia holds a myriad of wonders; a sea of grass, creatures lurking within its depths, murderous pirates, and ships run by hearthfires and the bones of captains long dead. From the very onset Johnson entirely immersed me into his delightfully fantastical creation.
The novel begins with a mysterious storyteller who comes to the village known only as Twist. With his arrival he brings a moment of solace to the tribe who live in perpetual fear of the monsters which dwell within the depths of the grass. We see the world is crumbling in ruin, the tribe’s numbers are few, the people are on the brink of starvation, they live in darkness, their homes are decaying. They welcome the storyteller who offers protection while his story is being told, yet we do not know how. Despite the villagers’ hardship, they become enraptured when the storyteller begins his tale.
I particularly love a framed narrative style and Johnson expertly uses it here as the storyteller embarks upon Kindred’s story. It is a story full of adventure, a quest for discovery, but also consists of peril and loss.
Our main protagonist, Kindred, is on board The Errant, sailing across the endless sea of grass. With pirates on her tail and attacks from monstrous beings, Kindred has one of the most important jobs in the ship’s crew. A hearthfire at the centre of the ship works to keep it afloat, to give it much needed speed, and Kindred, using the bones of dead captains, must shape and wield the flames in order to control the ship. Kindred is a hearthfire keeper and if she fails in her task then whatever dangers and mysteries lay hidden in the depths of the sea will claim them all. Yet Kindred has one advantage, her grandmother The Marchess is one of the most renowned hearthfire keepers, and through her tutelage Kindred can sing to the flames and shape the bones in ways which have never been taught to others. The only question is, does Kindred have the strength to live up to her grandmother’s notoriety and simultaneously use her own natural instincts too?
“Kindred felt herself falling down through those waves, the silken slide of grass rubbing her arms, cushioning her back as she descended into the unknown, every breath a discovery, every new sensation a wonder.
Listen for me in the grasses and listen for me below.”
Kindred is presented as a free spirit, she is a character who has been taught by her grandmother to always follow her heart before her head, and so her use of magic reflects this. I adored the magic in this book – there is no system here, no rigid rules. Johnson presents to us a magic born of chaos and intuition, of song and rhythm, something wild and unfettered. Although Kindred must wield the fire to do her bidding, she must learn to become one with it, to coax the flames rather than force them to her will. There were some questionable decisions made by Kindred, I felt she made a few unnecessarily reckless choices and didn’t quite think through the consequences of her actions, which on occasion put the whole crew in jeopardy. Having said that, I enjoyed Kindred’s exploration of her abilities, she is flawed and makes mistakes, but at her heart she is just desperate to follow the path in which her grandmother set forth, damning the cost. With such a wild main protagonist comes an unpredictable plot, which created such an exhilarating ride.
Johnson then furthers the framed narrative structure as Kinded often recalls upon tales of her time with her grandmother, the adventures they went on together. Shown through flashbacks, we see the Marchess had great affection for Kindred, and in Kindred clinging to these memories we see just how much she meant to her too. These were some of my favourite parts of the novel – though their relationship was often strained by conflicting views, they still retained so much love, it truly seeped off the page. Both my grandmothers died when I was of a young age, therefore I never got to form a relationship with them, I found seeing the bond and unconditional love between Kindred and her grandmother absolutely touching.
“The Marchess laughed, and Kindred smiled through her tears. She thought she’d never hear that laugh again, and yet there it was, as if it had never left the world.”
Although the book is told through two POV’s, we are still treated to a well-fleshed out eclectic band of side characters. The crew on board The Errant mostly consisted of females, and I greatly appreciated Johnson subverting the stereotype of only ‘men being at sea’ here. There is also a budding romance between Ragged Sarah and Kindred, which enriched the narrative further with another heart-warming story arc.
I have seen The Forever Sea likened to that of Studio Ghibli anime’s, and funnily enough I just recently watched Nausicaa, and although both are different they do share environmental themes of pollution and a sickness causing nature to decay. Both are set upon a world which is slowly dying. Despite the sea of grass holding much peril, it is also a fundamental source for the people of Arcadia. The world’s many variations of flora and fauna can be harvested for medicinal purposes, for use in clothing, food, and trade too. However as the narrative begins to unfurl, we see that human interference with nature is one of the significant causes for its destruction. Much like in Nausicaa, we discover that humans are the real monsters.
As much beauty as I found in Johnson’s world-building I found also in his exquisite prose. This was definitely a story which carried me along on its lyrical waves and left me with a sense of wonderment. The Forever Sea is a celebration of storytelling, it is the exploration of an enigmatic world in which we have only just touched the surface of, and with the ending left wide open, I can see there is plenty more story to tell.
“Kindred grew large: her roots sank deep, her leaves and petals drank in the same sunlight as the reef, the Roughs, her heart the Sea’s, the Sea’s heart forever hers.”
ARC provided by Sarah Mather at Titan Books. Thank you for the e-ARC!