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Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler
Book Name: Sea Change
Author: S.M. Wheeler
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / eBook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: June 18, 2013 (US) July 1, 2013 (UK)

If a sea monster reading you grisly fairy tales sounds like a great idea, you may love Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler.

Once upon a time, a girl named Lilly was born with a port-wine-stain birthmark. Had this smear of red been on her ankle she might have led a normal life. Instead people called her a demon, a witch child, because half her face crawled with a bloody splotch.

Superstition treats no one kindly, but even if Lilly had lived in our world she might have felt dominated by a few inches of skin pigment. Imagine if the first thing anyone noticed about you was a “defect,” if it began every conversation. Lilly handles it with heroic aplomb. When someone tells her that her birthmark is ugly, she replies, “Does that make the other half of my face beautiful?” And again, when another person asks her what kind of monster she is, she says, “None, except that I am human.”

With her own people calling her a monster, Lilly does what any logical girl would do and finds a friend in a tide pool. The kraken Octavius starts small, a kitten of tentacles. He grows to boat-gobbling proportions, but their friendship grows larger still. He has human eyes, can speak, and breathes air. He has a magical sense of humor and unconditional love that is so rare in humans and so common in beasts.

Lilly hides her visits to the beach much like she would conceal liaisons from her parents. Her father and mother have cutting arguments with each other, he demanding a (better) heir, she fearing the next childbirth will kill her. Lilly’s place in a fracturing household moved me, and I found the conflict all too believable, if at times hard to follow.

Sea Change is a novel where the author values the musicality of words over clarity. From sentence to sentence we must make imaginative leaps. Dialog attributions are as uncommon as four-leaf clovers. The adventure through prose is thrilling, though it is all too possible to get lost in the surf of words. The upside is that word connoisseurs will delight in great lines: “The whitewater was playful in the manner of creatures that ate humans with a smile.”

Speaking of sea monsters, I admit I have a soft spot for giant octopuses. Lilly’s friendship with the kraken is everything I hoped it would be. When he is stolen by a circus, it was like a harpoon in my heart. Of course Lilly has to go on a quest to save him.

To get Octavius back, Lilly must first find the circus. To do so, she sacrifices her gender to a troll. To return the kraken, the ringmaster demands a magical suit. To weave it, the tailor wants her dead partner returned. To bring back the dead man, a witch will want her stolen skin. To make the witch whole, bandits must be dealt with. To trick the bandits, a mule boy must have help killing a legendary stag.

Sea Change is told in the detached otherworldly tones of a fairy tale. In shorter stories, the fact that a witch has her skin stolen may go without comment. Selkies are having their pelts stolen like it’s a fashion. Why not witches? If you’ve ever wanted more detail about how a person in truth can survive without skin, you may or may not enjoy the gruesome particulars in this book. In reading Sea Change I learned something important about myself. I prefer people around me to have skin.

I would say the mutilation took me by surprise. A Disney fairy tale, this is not. When the ogress extracts her price from Lilly, innards fly. No detail is spared; no stomach goes unturned. The result is a protagonist stripped of every vestige of gender.

I assume S.M. Wheeler did this for us to talk about it, so let’s. With the removal of long hair and her curves, Lilly is perceived by others as a boy. Ascribing the feminine identity exclusively to outward characteristics is of course unfair, and Lilly still thinks of herself as a “she” in her inner monologue. The dissonance between her perception and others’ was jarring, and this sort of discrepancy leads some trans people to seek a change to bring their outward appearance in line with their identity. Not so with Lilly, whose resolve to free Octavius eclipses all else. She even enjoys less discrimination from her birthmark, since men are not so defined by beauty.

The loss of gender still frustrated me. I think she gave up her sex too easily. Lilly’s father trained her to be a merchant, and she fails time and time again at negotiating. Outward appearances aside, she also loses her capacity for sexual pleasure, and, yes, sex is a thing in this fairy world. (Perhaps I should clarify at this juncture that no tentacles are involved in sex; this woman-kraken friendship is pure, you weirdo.)

Lilly sacrifices to get Octavius out of his circus cage, bartering her labor and pieces of herself rather than resorting to violence. Nonviolence is a theme in this story, and Lilly makes Octavius promise to go on a non-human diet. The decency of human life extends to the antagonists. In other stories, the chief details described of bandits might be the hue of their blood and the pitch of their screams as the hero chops them into meatloaf. Here, we see real people forced to the margins of society, who would trade all their ill-gotten gains for acceptance.

That said, I wish Lilly had grabbed the circus master by the throat and resorted to some old-fashioned duress. The problem I had with this story was all the time spent running errands, away from Octavius. S.M. Wheeler made the kraken too lovable, and having him disappear after the first quarter of the book made the rest of the novel a sea-monsterless desert. A series of flashbacks throughout the narrative would have done much to remind me of the tentacled treasure Lilly is fighting for. Yet the author shows us little of Lilly’s thoughts for Octavius. We can only infer her love by the ordeals she goes through for his sake.

To avoid doing violence to others, Lilly inflicts violence on herself through sacrifice. Because of her choices, Sea Change ends in the traditional fairy-tale manner: in tears.

Now, if you hear a mournful bellowing on the shore, don’t be alarmed. That’s just me hoping that somehow, somewhere, a sea monster will be my friend.


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