Back in 2021, The Forever Sea, by Joshua Phillip Johnson was on our Dark Horse list. I enjoyed the book, but it was brought to heel by the lack of character. Over time I think the book lost some of its luster, but I still remembered the sweeping landscapes painted in my brain by Johnson’s prose. So when it was revealed that the sequel, The Endless Song, was coming out this year I felt both a cautious anxiety and a pull to dream once again in the grassy shoals. Unfortunately, the issues I had with the first book reared their big heads and made for a less than pleasant reading experience. Spoilers for The Forever Sea lie ahead; consult your maps if you wish to avoid them.
Kindred has been involved in the destruction of the Once-city, and Arcadia has been brought to its knees. But Kindred is still on the hunt for her Grandmother, the Marchess, and dives deep into the grassy sea that dominates the world. While down there, she encounters a wandering court who know of the Marchess, but she has fallen in with the Fell Court and may be up to more insidious tasks than Kindred was hoping for. Meanwhile, the Barony of the Borders is falling on the King of the Mainlands’ bad side. Their quirky nature meant to hide a deep family secret is wearing thin in the greedy king’s eyes. Flitch wants to do everything he can to help his family succeed and maintain their place in the world, but being the youngest of the Borders children makes achieving such a fate tougher than he imagines. Can both Kindred and Flitch follow their stories to save what they can? Or will they be cut short by forces outside their control.
Let me highlight some of the bits I liked first. Johnson’s prose is still wonderful, but it serves a different purpose here. Gone are the colors of the world as we venture below the sea and into the deep recesses of the Borders’ estate. Details are still there, but instead of the stained glass paintings, it’s dark voids filled with secrets and anxieties. The detritus of the top world litters the ground of the undersea. A shifting labyrinth haunts the basement of the Border castle, filled with a being who hunts you so that you may realize your true dreams, but at a cost. Johnson has some truly clever turns of phrase that just light up the story with a bit of mystery. It doesn’t feel as lush as the first book, but it keeps the world alive and breathing.
The Endless Song is also just full of some insanely fun and terrifying ideas. The labyrinth as a family secret was fantastically creepy, though underutilized. Quietus had some truly solid dialogue that cemented him as one of the better minotaurs of the maze I’ve read. The shadowdrake, was another truly astounding idea. A spirit that chases you till it consumes you, but can be stopped in its tracks as long as you chant its name, forever devoted to it in prayer. The book is just filled with all of these smaller ideas that don’t seem entirely connected to main themes, but nonetheless capture my attention to make me see how they play into the rest of the story.
However, that’s where most of my praise will stop. I had a hard time reading this book and making sure I got to the end. The addition of a second point of view character was welcome at first, but I quickly lost interest in the plight of the Borders. They felt flat as a family and mostly served to expand on the worldbuilding and open up to the themes of The Endless Sea. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I found it tedious and it got in the way of Kindred’s tale. The POV issue was also somewhat hampered by it switching only between chapters, which I think would help ramp up the tension, but most of the time each chapter felt like it was lagging on the cliffhanger. The lack of information as the two halves started dialoguing didn’t really affect the plot all that much, and I found it frustrating.
The lack of character depth was particularly strong in the sequel. Even Kindred herself barely felt like the single rounded character. I did have a better appreciation for Ragged Sarah, but she could have had more time to really shine. The Borders Family, including the lead role Flitch, just felt tacked on. They had some fun quirks, and a really neat family history—again, I cannot overstate how much I love a FAMILY SECRET LABYRINTH, but I really didn’t care about their spat with the king. He was a king, and he was bad. Cool. The lack of character also blunted a lot of the conflict. This was a problem in The Forever Sea but it felt hyper-realized here. Conflicts lasted sentences. The characters didn’t run into a wall, and take the time to reflect on things. Instead they bounced off the wall like a rubber ball and zoomed in the opposite direction. Resolutions came and went with the most minimal of set up. And that’s in a book that felt like it only truly got started over halfway through the book. There wasn’t any nuance or introspection, it just was, and now it is.
I think part of this stems from the nature of the two books. Now I will admit, I went into The Endless Song thinking it was the second in a trilogy, so my thoughts are definitely tinged. But the first book felt like the opener to an epic fantasy with a capital P Plot, and capital T Themes. But The Endless Song has a different plan in mind, one that is ostensibly good even, but the whiplash of expectations was strong and shaded my reading experience. The shift to smaller stories within the vast world felt right, but it made Kindred’s big adventure feel accidentally deflated instead of ritually sacrificed for greater effect. It didn’t hurt that the progression of the story didn’t lead the reader to the conclusion, it just dropped the piano on their head right before the climax. The book felt as if it was trying to be a story about the nature of having big stories and myths one follows, but it didn’t stick the landing and fell a full 360 degrees short.
I wanted to like The Endless Song and the stories Johnson was trying to sing, but it just fell flat for me. I didn’t feel the connection I felt in the first book, which brought to light all of the aspects that didn’t work. The sea change only made the experience more discordant. Maybe with time I might find some more appreciation, but right now I can’t say I enjoyed the second go around. If you loved The Forever Sea, you might find a lot to like about The Endless Song, but for me this was a frustrating experience.
Rating: The Endless Song – 5.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.