17 August, 2006

Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Edition reviewed, Discovered Authors, BookForce UK, 2006, ISBN 1-9051-0814-1

Sea Witch is set in 1716 in the Caribbean, Cape Town and on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean. All the main characters are fictional. A few real historical figures, such as William Dampier and Henry Jennings, have cameo roles.

Jesamiah Acorne is a pirate, young, handsome, carefree and without ties, until a failed attack on a merchant ship brings him into a contact with a young girl, Tiola Oldstagh. Tiola is a witch and the connection between her soul and Jesamiah’s goes deeper than their romantic attraction. But Tethys, the goddess of the sea, wants Jesamiah for herself. The smooth, wealthy merchant Stefan van Overstratten wants Tiola as his wife. And Jesamiah’s vengeful half-brother Phillipe wants Jesamiah dead at any cost.

Sea Witch is an ebullient, colourful story packed with action. Hurricanes, shipwreck, earthquake, ingenious thefts, narrow escapes, sea battles, arrest, imprisonment, assassination attempts, kidnap, magic and torture - the plot never flags. Two love triangles, one human (Stefan and Jesamiah are rivals for Tiola’s hand) and one supernatural (Tethys and Tiola both claim Jesamiah), complicate matters further. The exotic settings are described with vivid clarity, from the sleazy pirate settlements of Madagascar to the alleys and taverns of Cape Town.

Both central characters are well-rounded and engaging. Jesamiah is boyish and charming, impulsive enough to get himself into trouble on a regular basis and quick-thinking enough (usually) to get himself out of it again. Tiola is intelligent, independent and courageous, with her supernatural powers adding an extra layer to her character. The secondary characters are also well drawn, such as Tiola’s well-meaning guardian Jenna Pendeen, Jesamiah’s capable second-in-command Rue, and the privateer-pirate Henry Jennings. Even the principal villain, Jesamiah’s cruel half-brother Phillipe, is given a story of his own and a reason for his malevolence. Occasional use of dialect words and accent helps to distinguish the characters and give them each an individual voice - so the Frenchman Rue drops his H’s, Tiola occasionally uses Cornish words, and Stefan van Overstratten speaks in formal stuffed-shirt tones.

The Author’s Note details historical events that were borrowed or adapted for the story, and confesses to taking liberties with some of the dates. For me, a book that features the sea goddess as an important character and involves magic that works has no need to apologise for having moved an event by five years, but it is always very welcome when the author sets out the limits of fact and fiction. There is also a helpful glossary of nautical terms and a diagram of a ship, invaluable for those like me who vaguely know that boats have a pointy end, a blunt end and a pole in the middle. I’m impressed with the author’s apparent knowledge of sailing ships, which I’m utterly unqualified to assess but which certainly feels authentic.

Some of the supernatural elements in the tale confused me. I had trouble understanding the limits of Tiola’s magical powers - for example, why the telepathy between her and Jesamiah works at some times but not at others. A conflict between Tiola’s good witchcraft, the White Craft, and a (presumably?) evil form of magic, the Dark Power, is mentioned in passing from time to time but not explored in detail. Tiola evidently has some power over Tethys, but Tethys does not seem to be part of the Dark Power - or is she? I confess to having got lost in this good magic versus evil magic theme, although as it seems to be peripheral to the main story I may be trying to read too much into it.

A rollicking swashbuckler on the high seas, part romance, part pirate adventure, part historical and part fantasy.

Has anyone else read it?


Bernita said...

"a pointy end, a blunt end and a pole in the middle..."
What a delicious description!
The inconsistency of magical powers is a rock on which many narratives flounder, but, as you say, if it is periphial, most would not notice.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read it, but sounds interesting.

The last book I read with Tethys as a character was Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper. In it Tethys is of the Wild Magic, which is neither White nor Dark magic. Perhaps that is an explanation?

Carla said...

Oh, Bernita, why highlight the line that conveys my boundless ignorance? :-) I wouldn't say the magic is inconsistent, just that it's clearly limited (as magic always has to be, or there wouldn't be a story) and I haven't figured out quite how.

Nessili - what an interesting idea! It makes perfect sense to have some powers that aren't on one side or the other - there are some in Tolkien if I remember correctly, like Tom Bombadil. If the Wild Magic is older than the Dark and the White Magic, maybe it regards them as quarrelling upstarts?

Marg said...

I haven't read this but it sounds really good! Have added it to my list!

Bernita said...

Not your ignorance - your wit.

Carla said...

Marg - Hope you enjoy reading it! Let us know what you think.

Bernita - too kind.

Helen - thanks for dropping by, and I'm glad you liked the review. It will be most interesting to see how Tiola's powers - and their limitations - develop as the series goes on! I hadn't heard of Greenwitch before and will have to look out for it - thanks to you and Nessili for mentioning it.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Ohh, pirates with a bit of a twist. Nice.

*puts book on her ever increasing To Buy list*

Anonymous said...

you've not heard of Greenwitch? *gasps* ;-) It's the third book in Cooper's YA The Dark is Rising sequence. The first--Over Sea, Under Stone--and Greenwitch both take place in Cornwall (Mevagissey/St. Austell area). The second, The Dark is Rising, takes place along the Thames, and the fourth and fifth, The Grey King (a Newberry Award winner) and Silver on the Tree, are set in the Cader Idris area of Wales.

Love those books. Absolutely love them. The one trip I managed to Britain a few years ago was built around them :) They're built somewhat around the Arthurian legends, but you really have to read them to get the full flavor.

They're an easy evening's read. I highly recommend them for anyone who reads fantasy of any sort.

Um, can you tell I like this series? :-D

Bernita said...

Must say: I love to see books combining fact and fantasy.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Hope you enjoy it!

Nessili - I probably missed reading them as a kid for some reason and then didn't discover them later because they're shelved in the children's section. So thanks for telling me about them!

Bernita - I have mixed feelings. Some work very well, but I confess to having got rather bored with druids and mysticism in novels about King Arthur.

Bernita said...

I read ( and re-read) Mary Stewart's trilogy.
It satisfied me.
Haven't touched an Arthurian set since.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I tended to go through phases when I was younger. So I had an Arthur phase when I devoured every novel I could lay my hands on re the subject and whatever the treatment from the mundane to the mystical. Mary Stewart remains my favourite for the poetry of her language. I read The Mists of Avalon and enjoyed it, but once was enough. Mary Stewart I've revisited often. Again, I did this with Richard III novels and for a time had quite a crush (which has since faded. I now have my balance back I hope!)
As to Sea Witch - a terrific romp. I actually think it's Helen's best novel so far!