All authors need a change of direction sometimes. It may be because they have said everything they wanted to in the genre or subgenre that has supported their career. It may be that the sphere they are writing is saturated and sales are tailing off as readers have more choice, or maybe the publishers decide that it is time, for better or worse, for a writer to branch out, take a break from their preferred style or venture into an area that might attract a new tranche of the reading public. Until now, Kelley Armstrong has specialised in supernatural fiction based in a contemporary world peopled with werewolves, demons, witches and other similar beings. Sea of Shadows belongs in a different sub genre, that of YA pure fantasy.
To be true YA, the main characters need to be of that age where they are beginning to find the opposite sex interesting and have a certain degree of autonomy so that real adults can be left out of the equation. Sea of Shadows focuses on the teenage twins Moira and Ashyn. In their world, concealing the birth of twins is punishable by death as some pairs are destined to become a Keeper and Seeker, accompanied by protectors, a Hound and a Wildcat. Moira and Ashyn live at the edge of a wilderness known as the Forest of the Dead. Criminals are taken into the Forest. If they survive, they have earned their freedom. But no-one ever returns. So once a year it is the job of the Seeker to go into the forest and find the bodies of the dead and free their souls. Otherwise the spirits may return to kill. Moira’s job is to stop malevolent spirits leaving the forest. Usually this is a straightforward task. This time, however, things start to go wrong and the Seeking party fails to return. What comes out of the Forest is death.
The male interest in this novel is provided by Ronan and Gavril. Ronan was one of the band of felons taken to the Forest four months previously and whose body is among those Ashyn expects to find. Gavril is a young warrior, stationed in the village partly as a punishment for the supposed guilt of his father in practicing sorcery – which is outlawed in this country.
Fleeing the death and destruction, the four need to travel to the capital to tell the emperor that there is an army of the dead on its way and that creatures that were supposed to be legends are now at loose in the land. It is not an easy journey but during their travels, all of them begin to find qualities they didn’t know they had.
At one level, this is a rite of passage novel with each of the young people facing situations they never imagined and finding maturity. By the end, very little has been resolved, especially the relationships between the girls and the young men, partly because this is the first volume of a trilogy. There is sufficient complexity and action to engage a teenage reader but a more widely read adult may feel frustrated as the girls in particular, seem to take the very nasty events in their stride. Followers of Kelley Armstrong’s adult supernatural fiction will be disappointed and wonder if this is a move in the right direction for this author and the readership she already has. I don’t think so.