When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen – Advance Review

Book Jacket:

After seventeen-year-old Felicita’s dearest friend, Ilven, kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own death and leaves her sheltered life as one of Pelimburg’s magical elite behind.

Living in the slums, scrubbing dishes for a living, she falls for charismatic Dash while also becoming fascinated with vampire Jannik. Then something shocking washes up on the beach: Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic. Felicita must decide whether her loyalties lie with the family she abandoned . . . or with those who would twist this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.

You can read an excerpt here.


When the Sea is Rising Red is one impressive debut novel.

The world of this book is lush and hypnotic in a way that’s hard to quantify – much like Robin McKinley’s Chalice or Pegasus, this book envelopes you completely, immersing you in a sea of myth and magic while all the while fully expecting you to keep up. The layers of this book are dense and manifold – Hellisen has created a world where magic goes hand in hand with drug addiction, where love resides uncomfortably amidst questionable motives, where no one is entirely blameless. There is so much woven into the social fabric of this book – race, gender, socio-economics, the politics of privilege and oppression – that the world breathes on the page. And then Hellisen, having fully created her world, immediately sets about warping and tearing the social fabric she has so painstakingly created, challenging its very design. It is just breathtaking world building.

I really don’t want to say too much about the characters, because so much of this story is about discovering the truth of the people in it – but I will say this: nothing is simple in this world of Hellisen’s. No kindness or cruelty can ever be taken at face value, and no truth is easy or comfortable. In this world of different races and strange magics, of half forgotten myths born on children’s rhythms, of people strange and oblique, there is no black and white – only shades of grey. And it is altogether wonderful to behold.

Now as you might imagine, all of the above lends a somewhat uneasy quality to this story. Also unsettling was how this book felt, for lack of a better word, blurry at times. I would find myself straining to make sense of where it was taking me, of how the plot was constructed – it was like I was a building inspector looking for girders and struts, and just not finding them. There is no question that this book is compelling, it’s just that it’s also at times, uncomfortable – you’ll have to work for it a bit.

In the end, I’m honestly not entirely sure what to think of this story. It dazzled me on several levels, no question – I loved how evocative and unique it was; how Hellisen’s vampires were not at all what you’d expect, and how her so-called love triangle was hardly recognizable enough to warrant the name – but I’m still not sure if it falls within my palette. The flavor was rich and unexpected – challenging, like a high quality wine – and I’m still mulling over the taste. There is no denying the quality of this book, or the talent of its author, but I will definitely be thinking about this one for a while.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly says:

Debut author Hellisen’s style features evocative descriptions and unflinching detail, drawing readers into the unusual and intriguing elements that make up Felicita’s socially complex world.

Paperback Dolls say:

This was one of the most interestingly different books I have read. It took me a really long time to get into the story but I was never bored with it, just puzzled and intrigued.  Reading this book was felt like being inside someone else’s dream.

Tamora Pierce says:

This is an amazing book about people trapped by their families and their societies, struggling to break free. The shadows are very dark, and the world building is fascinating, with no one exactly who they seem to be. I gave this one a cover quote last year, so you *know* I liked it!