It’s time for another Dark Horse! This is one I have been wanting to get to for a while, but it’s hard to right a ship after just completely blowing past your destination. I was caught in its wake first by it’s insanely gorgeous cover, and second by the promise of its story and potential to deliver environmental themes. When I read about Joshua Philip Johnson’s prose, I was even more curious. The Forever Sea is an impressive debut with an intricate world painted by colorful prose that is somewhat marred by the lack of deep character.
The book follows Kindred, a twenty two year old woman who is a member of Errant’s crew. She is a keeper of the ship’s hearthfire, tending to the magic fire that keeps it afloat above the miles of grass that makes up the world’s oceans. The Errant, captained by Jane Caraway, glides across the grass in search of the ever dwindling medicinal and magic grasses that uphold civilization. When returning from a voyage that nearly killed them, Kindred learns that her grandmother, known as the Marchess, walked into the sea from her own boat. She can barely understand it, but the Marchess has always had a more intimate connection with the grasses than most other people. The sea was dying. Water was harder and harder to come by as larger swaths of grass began to turn grey, becoming resistant to the rejuvenating fires that occasionally light up the sea. After a conflict with the local senator on Arcadia forces the Errant and her now fugitive crew onto the sea, Kindred tries to unravel the mystery her grandmother sacrificed herself for.
Johnson’s prose is perfect at building the world. The landscape and natural elements often feel like moving stained glass, especially out on the sea. Arcadia, meanwhile, is rigid and grey filled with rules and a sense of dread. The action scenes are tense, particularly when Kindred is directly involved, and feel detached when she is watching from afar. The ships and the culture of sailing feel grand and small at the same time. It feels like Johnson is highlighting their importance to the people, while reminding the reader how incredibly big everything is. There is a mystery to the sea that feels intimate and dangerous on a cosmic scale. If you haven’t noticed, Johnson’s book is filled to the brim with these dichotomies. Johnson’s prose is so lush and deliberate, these opposing ideas stand out purposefully, providing substance to the plethora of style. The frequency with which Johnson shows them off caused me to see these contrasts as the main theme, finding balance. I could cheat and pull sections from the book, but even then, it’d be like pulling a thread from a tapestry and trying to explain the beauty of the whole piece. It’s impossible.
The magic system is also a delight. I imagine some people will have trouble with it; it’s incredibly vague and there aren’t many rules. In fact, most of the rules that guide the handlers of magic are made up by the users. I found it charming, and it easily played into the endless dichotomies already mentioned. I was entranced that the ships were kept afloat by a magic that requires the bones of dead ship captains, leaves of grass, and singing to fire. It allowed Johnson to occasionally take liberties with the system, having Kindred experiment in dire situations without much other context than “feeling”, but it did not feel inconsistent and oftentimes felt like learning.. It highlighted Kindred’s innate curiosity with the world, while also forcing her to push her boundaries and break the “rules.”
Kindred herself is likeable enough, but feels a bit lacking compared to the world. She felt young and brash, selfish and loyal at the same time. Kindred is an intriguing, if easy, window into Johnson’s world. She had a connection with the hearthfire that was a nice melding of both learned and innate, and she is incredibly dedicated to finding out why her grandmother walked into the sea. I think some readers might find it annoying that her character was mostly, “break the rules, fix the holes later,” but I for one was glad she was young, lost and overconfident in her abilities. I think she would have been more interesting if there had been more conflict between her learned and natural talents. However, she gets to be fallible and sometimes lies to get her way, but it always felt in service to a greater need for discovery, not power over others. If anything, she stood out too much in those ways because the other characters were lacking.
The other characters, however, were a mixed bag of underdeveloped auxiliary characters and sharply drawn tropes.They often felt more designed to deliver the themes within the book than they were people in and of themselves. It might be more apparent to some than others, but I didn’t really think about it until after I finished the book. If anything, they were just there instead of being problematic or annoying. This is most recognizable in how several of the characters embodied one side of an argument or another, without any personal stake in the matter. The only character who came close to transcending this was Little Wing (Kindred’s closest foil), but even she became more of a one-dimensional force than an actual character. The uneven pacing didn’t help either, with the story lurching forward every now and then to pick up the pace from some of the descriptive spirals. Some folks will also probably be put off by the framing narrative, but I found it compelling even though it always felt like it butted in at the wrong points.
I was satisfied by the story, and even more fulfilled by Johnson’s themes. As I mentioned, the book is full of dichotomies and finding the in between. Occasionally, they were blunt, but oftentimes he subtlety weaved them into the narrative. The upfront one is climate change, and how it affects the perception of resources and its origins in the overuse of said resources. This one is marrow deep, lurking within every interaction from the rationing of water, the monocultured collection of sea grasses, and the society’s relationship with the sea itself. There were a few clunky issues here and there, especially with the blunt approach he takes with the Once-city, but Johnson mostly sticks the landing.
Ultimately, I had a good time with this book. Everytime I picked it up, I was carried on a breeze through a hundred pages or more, lost in Johnson’s prose. The magic is on the softer side (like warm blades of grass), but significant to the world and characterization. There are truly some awe inspiring moments, and cute little touches here and there that made the experience definitely worthwhile. Despite the flash characterization of the folks around Kindred, and some of the weirder pacing choices I enjoyed it. I just hope the next book has more than Kindred and her laser focused quest.
Rating: The Forever Sea 7.5/10