This is a review of “Sea of Ghosts” which is the first book in Alan Campbell’s Gravedigger Chronicles.
When the last of the Gravediggers – an elite force within the army – are disbanded and hunted down, Colonel Thomas Granger takes refuge in the unlikeliest of places: he becomes a jailer in the flooding prison-city Ethugra. Ianthe is a young girl with an extraordinary psychic talent in a world where the psychic Haurstaf sisterhood is the only thing between humanity and the Unmer – powerful sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors who once enslaved humanity. As factions race to get their hands on Ianthe and Granger struggles to protect her, there is another enemy rising who, if not stopped, will drown the world and all of life with it…
The world in this book was beyond fascinating. It gripped tight and refused to let go. Technology and ships and clothing point to the setting being akin to 1900 – give or take a few years. Seas that are literally poisonous and acidic eroding away at what land there is, form a backdrop of a constant, terrifying threat. In a world where even a drop of seawater burns and turns your skin to stone, and where water has to be purified before it can be drank or used in any way, humans have to struggle to build their homes ever higher and boil all sealife at least three times before eating it. The deadships and the Drowned are a fascinating mystery, and the race of the elf-like Unmer and their powers only add to the fascination. There ought to have been more of them, and of Conquillas considering he is the only Unmer still running free.
Thomas Granger was utterly ruthless and a delight to read about when he was allowed to be the soldier that he clearly is. Stealing the emperor’s ship, sinking two Haurstaf vessels, outwitting enemies, he is clearly very good at it and it provided some of the most amazing sequences of the book. And though she was an angry teenager, Ianthe was a joy to read about. Her odd skill, the way she kept it hidden and her obviously teenage reactions to finding out Granger was her father, were realistic.
Ethan Maskelyne is a frightening sociopath. He and Briana are the only of the characters who stays fully in character throughout the entire story, and the mask of politeness that he constantly wears so very perfectly only make it more shocking whenever it does drop. There is one moment when he believes his wife is defying him in order to help him keep control over a frightened crew, and the way he is so utterly convinced of it, as if there is no chance of anything else being possible, is terrifying.
Briana Marks makes for a singularly ruthless leader of the Haurstaf, who looks down on everyone. Hana was a strong woman as Ianthe’s mother, she definitely deserved a much better fate and her demise is the most touching one of all the book. Granger’s former soldiers were all a joy to read even if they were there very shortly, and their demise wasn’t as shocking nor as touching as it could have been had they been utilized more. Creedy was a good character when he wasn’t being too telling in his greed – at which point Granger himself became an idiot for not acting on the painfully obvious signs.
And there is a lot of that going on in this book: characters acting painfully out of character.
The second time we meet Emperor Hu he acts as a moron. Maskelyne’s wife – Lucille – wanting to protect a young woman from her husband’s ire makes absolutely no sense especially since that young woman tried several times over to kill her child. Thomas Granger and Ianthe both do several utterly stupid things that go so much against their personalities that the only reason it could have happened was if they were influenced by Unmer artifacts. Otherwise it is simply extremely bad writing on the author’s part.
Granger himself drops into out of character quite often. First when he sasses an emperor he knows won’t react well, then when he meets the woman who he once had an affair with during a campaign – which, apparently, resulted in a child. If said woman had been mentioned before, fondly remembered, or just even mentioned, then his reaction to seeing her might have been more understandable. The same with the way he takes to being a father for a rather rude girl he has never even met let alone known about before. There was absolutely no foundation for any of this except for the plot needing to move along.
Ianthe Knows the situation she is in, and still walks out on deck with a pair of Unmer seeing glasses on, in full view of Maskelyne and his men. She knows what the glasses do, she watched Maskelyne theorise about them, and still she does it. Of course they will catch her at it. When she does arrive at Awl and the Haurstaf palace, there is not a single thought of escaping or plans or her hate and fear for the Haurstaf. It is as if she never had it, as if she is a completely different person. Why should she suddenly care for what the other trainees think of her if she doesn’t want to be there in the first place as she professed at the start of the book? Her reactions to the torture the Haurstaf subject the captured Unmer to, is beyond lacking. Why does she accept it so readily, and why would she feel any sort of sympathy for an Unmer prince if she hasn’t gotten to know him except for to spy on him for a few minutes twice?
There are also instances of things happening just when Granger or Ianthe enter a room. There is no obvious way the two of them influence the things happening, and yet it happens just at that moment. That begets the question as to why these things didn’t happen earlier if they can happen so easily? Not only that but the ending of the book was… lacking to say the least. One expects more considering the time the book took to build up to it.
Also, it must be mentioned, there were at least three different instances of writing mistakes that I came across.
Despite the obvious, painful faults in the characters, the world that has been built up is by far the best I have come across in a long time. It easily overshadows the characters living in it, and it is the only reason that I will continue on to read the second book.
I recommend this book for the fascinating world in it, but that is all.