Tor, 2011, 431p.
On a world where a race known as the Unmer was vanquished decades ago their artefacts still haunt the human inhabitants. Much-valued Unmer “trove” is scattered randomly over the sea-bed and material called brine, poisonous to humans, is emanating from ichusae, or sea bottles, and making the sea level rise slowly but inexorably. Protective clothing must be worn if there is danger of contact with brine as humans develop “sharkskin” on any exposed surfaces, which leads to pain and death. Those fully immersed, however, still carry on a life as “the Drowned,” swimming about freely under the brine, but are feared and persecuted by the authorities.
Telepaths known as Haurstaf helped defeat the Unmer and act as a kind of secret service (or, since they act for both sides in conflicts, more like an inquisition.)
This is a fantasy world with a difference. Yes there are dragons and slaves, but while the political structure is still monarchical (Emperor Hu) there are guns – and boats with engines. Refreshingly not the usual mediæval milieu, then.
In addition the Unmer trove has a technological basis. A rationale is given for the otherwise magical overflowing of brine from unstoppered ichusae and for the properties of Unmer artefacts. One of the characters knows about the wave-particle duality of light and muses on gravitation. These aspects of the novel make it Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. In feel, however, it leans more towards the fantastical.
In the prologue one of the so-called Gravediggers of the subtitle, Colonel Thomas Granger, offends Emperor Hu and they have to spirit themselves away to the city of Ethugra to escape his ire. The novel proper starts when an enslaved woman recognises Granger as the man she had a relationship with years before and pleads with him to save herself and her daughter, Ianthe, whom Granger surmises to be his child too, by buying them. Ianthe turns out to have powers to find trove, powers which will interest the Haurstaf and the local Mr Big, Ethan Maskelyne.
The novel sometimes has aspects of a quest story, at others of the military insert and retrieve mission. Pleasingly, very few of the characters are mere ciphers (though Emperor Hu is something of a caricature of the spoilt aristocratic brat.) Campbell knows how to draw a reader in to his story and to keep the attention.
Unfortunately, at the production level, the text is ill-served by having words – frequently “the” or “a” – missing or repeated and other typographical errata of various sorts. Another example of the tendency of publishers to look on their publications simply as “product” and wheel them out without due care.
Novels are not product. At least, the good ones aren’t.
Sea of Ghosts is a superior fantasy, well worth a read. The paperback is now available.