Sea of Ghosts is the stunning new release from Alan Campbell, and the first in the Gravedigger Chronicles. Ostensibly some sort of epic fantasy, Sea of Ghosts follows the misadventures of a disgraced military hero as he navigates through a grim and relentless world.
Our hero, such as he is, is Captain Thomas Granger. As the leader of a unit forlornly nicknamed "The Gravediggers", he's an impressive man. The reader catches Granger in his full glory at the start of the book, when the Captain and his unit defeat an Unmer warlock. The Unmer are the (supposedly) defeated enemies of humanity - a sorcerous, aquatic race with the ability to create lavishly complex magical artifacts. Despite the warlock's obvious advantage, the Gravediggers do a bit of ass-kicking. They're cool, collected and on top of the world.
That is, until the second chapter. Captain Granger unwisely mouths off to Emperor Hu and the Gravediggers suddenly find themselves wanted men. Some stay, hoping to hide in the Emperor's own shadow. Granger flees to the far end of the empire, the prison city of Ethugru. There, Granger spends several years hiding in miserable safety until, against odds, his past comes to haunt him. Granger has, previously unbeknowst to him, a daughter, Ianthe. Ianthe has eerie psychic abilities - which makes her a valuable trophy to the local crimelord, the Emperor and the guild of psychics that protect humanity from the Unmer menace (for a price). Granger is rudely jostled from his shell and thrown into a whirlpool of the world's most powerful players.
Sea of Ghosts has been compared to China Miéville's Bas-Lag series, and there are certainly some superficial similarities. The corrupt political structure and the emphasis on both transformation and punishment certainly echo elements found in Mr. Miéville's landmark trilogy. But Mr. Campbell doesn't write with Mr. Miéville's etymological flair, nor is the actual narrative of Sea of Ghosts told in Mr. Miéville's subversive style. Not to say Sea of Ghosts isn't complex, but it doesn't have the layers-upon-layers-upon of meaning. Perhaps better comparisons for Mr. Campbell can be found in two other Pornokitsch favourites: Mark Charan Newton and KJ Parker.
The Newtonian (wow) parallels are probably the most visible. In the dying stages of the Unmer/human war, the Unmer unleashed an apocalyptic "brine" into the world. The oceans are poisonous and, worse yet, rising. To touch the water is to risk serious scarring, transformation into a shark-skinned "Drowned" and, eventually, a messy death. The slowly ticking clock of the rising water dominates Sea of Ghosts, just as the coming ice age rules Mr. Newton's fantasy series. Both authors are talented enough to discuss their cataclysms indirectly - ordinary people are trying to press on with their ordinary lives. But as they do so, the tension mounts.
There are a few similar story elements as well - Mr. Campbell also shares Mr. Newton's clear love of decadent, declining empires and convoluted multi-planar science. Both authors strongly draw upon the "Dying Earth" tradition and, given the success of Mr. Newton's series and the impressive debut of Mr. Campbell's, it is fair to say that they're both enriching the tradition as well.
Stylistically, Mr. Campbell shares a lot in common with K.J. Parker. Sea of Ghosts does feature wild violence, set-piece action scenes and cinematic magic - three things that never appear in Parker's books. However, when it comes to a devotion to the "bits and pieces", Mr. Campbell writes in a similar style. Whether Granger is hammering in new floorboards or battling pirates, Mr. Campbell writes in the same detached fashion. There's an enormous emphasis on the "how" - the bits of string, the morning calisthenics, the arrangement of the furniture - but a deliberate eschewing of the "why". Mr. Campbell takes the principle of "show, don't tell" to a disassociated extreme. As a result, Captain Granger and Ianthe are near-alien beings. It is easy to be impressed by them or to be sympathetic of their situation, but there's very little empathy. This is an unusual stylistic decision and, again, one reminiscent of K.J. Parker.
The devotion to the "how" also continues into Sea of Ghosts' dedication to the science of magic. Mr. Campbell has created a fascinatingly doomed world, but rather than explore it in any traditional fashion, its history and properties are revealed through pseudo-scientific journal entries. Maskelyne is also, interestingly enough, the book's villain - a truly reprehensible character with a remarkable gift for post hoc rationalisation. His contributions to the narrative are doubly unreliable. Not only is Maskelyne, you know, the bad guy, but also he's an admittedly amateur scientist. He's curious about the forces that rule his world, but he's not expert in them. Even so, he's brighter than your average bear, and his investigations can get very detailed. Again, there are connections with the stories of K.J. Parker - particularly the anti-heroes that abound in Parker's Engineer Trilogy. While the rest of the population seems satisfied to eke out their remaining days in a silent commitment to the status quo, Maskelyne and Granger are connected by their desire for change. Both are selfishly motivated, but, from a distance, there's a hazy sort of idealism in the mix as well.
We don't mention cover art often enough on this blog. There's nothing more important in moving a book off the shelves than its cover. Naturally, this means that most books are packaged in a shamelessly "Me too!" kind of way (see: "Hooded man with two drawn swords, stalking through alley" and "Tattoos, corsets and come-hither stare"). Larry Rostant's cover for Sea of Ghosts not only cuts through the clutter but also perfectly expresses the quasi-real style of Mr. Campbell's writing. Everything is sharp, inhuman, detailed and ominous. It isn't often that we pick up a new book solely for its cover (Aurorarama is the last one I can recall), but this is one of them.
Mr. Campbell combines the epic and political and wraps the entire thing up in a delightfully bitter little pill. In Sea of Ghosts, he's created a sinister, time-sensitive setting and populated it with mysterious, amoral characters. This isn't a book that follows the cut-and-dried traditions of epic fantasy, but it does still possess that school's devotion to a dramatic storyline and wild action. It is easy to draw comparisons between this work and that of other, highly-regarded authors, but, in truth, Mr. Campbell's book is completely his own and he should be immensely proud of it.