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4.3 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2011
This is the first novel I've read by Scottish author Alan Campbell, and it is easily one of the best I've read in years. This novel is almost indescribably good.

The Sea of Ghosts is a novel of honour, revenge, loyalty and perseverance, set in a world ravaged by unfathomable science and magic. Falsely accused of treason, the surviving members of the Gravediggers are forced to go underground, or flee the imperial capital altogether. Granger, our hero, has fled to Ethugra with his comrade Creedy. Ethugra is a twisted, darker version of Venice, if you were to replace the palazzos and fine architecture with multiple jails, constantly in need of repair and modification as the toxic and caustic seas continue to rise.

Campbell's characters are universally realistic and complex. Granger's sense of honour is frequently tested by his chosen profession (that of jailer), and his life is turned upside down after Ianthe arrives, creating an irreparable rift between him and his former comrade-in-arms. As events progress, we see just how determined Granger is to make up for past mistakes. He also reveals a MacGuyver-esque ingenuity that serves him well as we follow him on his personal journey. Ianthe is a tragic figure, someone who has only experienced a world intent on taking advantage of her gifts, never looking out for her best interests; as she deals with the multiple factions intent on harnessing her powers for their own ends, she comes to develop a very harsh world view, and some of her choices and actions are quite chilling.

Campbell introduces more perspectives as the novel progresses, and we gain a more nuanced picture of the protagonists and nominal antagonists of the novel. Granger's perspective, of course, predominates, but Ianthe's comes to feature prominently as well, as we get to know her more, and she attempts to get to grips with her unique powers. Maskelyne is another interesting character: a metaphysicist and treasure hunter with far more than just wealth on his mind, the reader will come to develop a mixed impression of him, as his possibly noble agenda is sullied by the single-minded brutality to which he resorts to achieve it. It is through Maskelyne that we learn the most about the Unmer, and especially their artefacts (he is quite the fervent collector).

The world of the novel is as important as the characters, and as complex and interesting. Life is defined by a person's ability to avoid the toxic brine, and the unlucky masses who are unable to avoid its touch and mutating effects are forgotten and, under Maskelyne's harsh rule of Ethugra, often used for brutal sport, entertainment, and experimentation. The harsh life of this world's people is brilliantly portrayed on the page. Among the dangers presented by the ever-rising sea-levels, citizens and misfits must contend with brutal dictators, the occasional escaped Unmer (a species we learn tantalizingly little about), and also ever-hungry dragons with peculiar addictions.

It's a bit difficult to locate The Sea of Ghosts in the fantasy genre as a whole. There are a plethora of elements and inspirations drawn from so many sub-genres and non-fantasy genres, and in the second half, Campbell starts bending the fantasy genre to feature some things that are usually reserved for sci-fi (metaphysics, for example). It's handled expertly, even if it was a bit of a weird addition to the novel, and certainly promises some interesting developments to come in the series. The genre mash-up reminded me of Mark Charan Newton's Red Sun series (one of my favourite fantasy series). There are also elements of the novel that reminded me of China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, and maybe a little bit of Neil Gaiman at his darkest (but not weirdest - the atmosphere was akin to that in American Gods).

The plot is tight and quickly paced, and even though it's obvious that this is the first part of something larger, it doesn't suffer from the weaknesses that often characterise first parts of series - the world-building is expertly interwoven into the plot, and the story doesn't get bogged down into long tracts of exposition. The aforementioned themes Campbell weaves into his novel are classic (betrayal, revenge, family), but the world into which they are located is highly imaginative and original. It is a world so full of weird, wonderful, and sometimes horrifying invention, it's captivating. The Unmer artefacts in particular are an intriguing element of the world - very little is known about them, how they work and also what some of them do; only a handful of collectors understand even surface-level details about the Unmer creations, and trove-hunters have to tread very carefully when they find an artefact.

I enjoyed this novel really very much. Campbell's prose is sublime, possessing that indescribable quality that sucks you in, envelopes your imagination and pulls you happily along for the ride; insistently readable and compelling. The novel kept me up until 4am on three occasions, as "one more chapter" turned into three or four. The ending will also leave you gasping for more, as the futures of the characters and also the world are left unclear. I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

Campbell's knack for atmospherics is almost peerless, and his innate storytelling ability is awe-inspiring. The Sea of Ghosts is superb and essential fantasy reading.

For Fans of: Mark Charan Newton, China Mieville, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Brian Ruckley, Mervyn Peake, Neil Gaiman
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The sea is toxic and gradually rising and the world reduced to a few isolated island archipelagoes. Society is brutal, exploitative and feudal. Thomas Granger is a hunted man and his daughter is a valuable political and scientific commodity. Read on...

I picked this up on no more than a whim after spotting it's rather striking cover art on the "recommended" section at the bookshop and, a few short days later, I put it down again, pretty much blown away. OK, so I'm no steampunk afficionado so I guess that some who do know the genre well may ho and hum and pass it off as nothing out of the ordinary, but for me, Sea of Ghosts was a real revelation.

For a start, "steampunk" doesn't quite do it justice. The setting is alien and yet so vestigially familiar. Does it take place on a future earth? A parallel earth? An alternative earth? Nowhere on earth? I am still not entirely sure that the protagonists are even //human// and I was waiting for the twist to come where it was revealed that they were in fact three headed gorgons or highly evolved fish or something wierd like that and that the story's aliens (the magical Unmer) were in fact humans (the twist didn't happen, by the way). That is how clever the story actually is - it takes a profoundly strange environment to keep you guessing and yet weaves tantalising threads of familiarity to ensnare you.

The world is an extremely rich one despite it's apocalyptically diluvian flaw - a sort of watery Dune on steroids, where magic and science are a part of everyday life, peopled by strange monsters, strange humans and strange aliens. It is not, however, a nice story. To call it "dystopian" would be a bit like calling the The Lord of the Rings "a bit of a yarn". As I have said, the story's society is appalingly brutal and exploitative; a real "dog-eat-dog" world where, for instance, prisoners are abandoned to starve or drown in slowly flooding cells not out of cruelty but simply from neglect and apathy. Granger's first thought when discovering his daughter's talents is how he can use them to his financial advantage. Again, this is not because he is a bad person, but because he is desperate. It is a world without love, friendship, care or even hope and it is a disturbing story.

Of course, the characters' behaviours are driven by the proximity and toxicity of the sea and the imperative to avoid it. However, Sea of Ghosts is let down a little by a mildly superficial characterisation. But only a little; the problem is not as severe as you might think from other reviews. I admit to have been baffled by Granger's sudden but imperceptible shift from wanting to sell his daughter to wanting to save her. This happens with little or no explanation or cause - in one chapter she is a both a burden and an opportunity and in the next she is his flesh and blood. How did that happen? I was also a little baffled by Granger's Superman-like invulnerability and boundless ingenuity. Nevertheless, the characters are fun and some (such as Maskelyne) are also complex.

I suppose that, if you were really trrying to fing fault, you could also complain that Campbell does lapse occasionally into sci-fi/fantasy-adventure cliche and formulaic action hero high-jinks and that this jars unhappily with the strangeness and originality of the whole. You might also take issue (as I often do) with the "chuck 'em in at the deep end and see if they learn to swim" approach to stroy telling, but I do contend that these are relatively minor problems, or at least are easily overshadowed by the plentiful goodness. The writing is excellent and if you are confused by the goings-on, the complicated but unstated history and back-story, if the nature of the Unmer is unclear to you... persist! Things will become clearer (well, a bit!) as you progress.

Highly recommended and roll on Vol 2.
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This is an intriguing fantasy novel which keeps the reader guessing as to where it is going. A bit of steampunk, weird magic and fresh ideas assault the reader from almost the first page. Set in an intelligently crafted world where the sea is rising and heavily toxic, there are a number of key protagonists: a resourceful officer on the run from the Empire, a cunning treasure hunter, a witch and a young girl with some very strange abilities.

What is interesting about this is that you can't see where the author is taking the plot and the setting is certainly an interesting one, the characters are well fleshed out and the setting is certainly both detailed and very intriguing. The author also does not hold back on violence or scenes of distress, all adding to the vivid picture he paints. It's a nasty place to live in, that's for sure.

So why three stars rather than four? Well, it does get complex in the final quarter and I was lost a couple of times with the science and it does not quite answer some of the questions and that knocks it back a bit for me. First three quarters were four stars and I was totally absorbed (mainly because it was character and setting focused I think) but then the complexity set in and I started to feel a little frustrated that I wasn't quite `getting it'. But I really enjoyed this world and the clever ideas behind it, some very fresh thinking here.
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on 1 May 2011
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 evil-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 I pick up a new book solely for its cover, but this is one of the few.

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.
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on 13 August 2015
I've wanted this book for ages. The premise sounded really interesting and different. I read a lot, and I am a fantasy nut when it comes to my reading choices. The premise of this book with poisonous water which is ever increasing was really interesting. The characters were great particulalry the flawed and bitter Granger.
The truly unique concept was Ianthe however, I don't wnat to give away what is unique about her but when it is revealed you will like me wonder what that would be like, and I think Campbell does it increadibly well.

This is the first book I have read by the author but I have brought the first of another series and the second of this.
I liked it. However it is not a five star book, there was something...i'm not sure what...that was just missing that would have made this a great book. It is clearly an introduction to a massive world with more history then we think and I look forward to seeing that develop in subsequent books.
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Alan Campbell is definitely one of those authors that is not only inventive but unpredictable. Here in his latest offering, the reader is taken to a new world where the inhabitants sensing the end decided to be spiteful and poison the world to those who would come after. Definitely inventive, definitely a title that the reader will get behind and with a principle hero that the reader will just love to travel with makes this book a whole new beginning in the writing career of this author.

Add to this some great dialogue, a wonderfully colourful world to explore and a few deep dark twists that will keep you glued to the last page and its definitely one that will have you clamouring for the next instalment as soon as possible. Definitely a title to keep an eye out for as there's nothing even close to it out there. Great stuff.
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on 1 July 2011
I heard someone recently identify a seperate branch of fantasy as 'new weird'. Well this is a twig on that branch as Campbell does weird as well as anyone!

For all that, there were a few very familiar themes here. A world being gradually poisoned and a world seeming littered with magical items left behind by an elder race now in rapid decline. However! The gradual spoiling of the earth is not (thank the lord) an encroaching ice age or some sort of thorny blight, it is a poisonous brine being released into the oceans by thousands of little ornate bottles dropped into the sea by the Unmer (said elder race)out of spite as man aided by a coven of psychics throw off their slave chains and rise up to gain the upper hand.

The result is a very peculiar place! Cities rising on top of the flooded cities of the past, trovers diving down to the old streets looking for magical artifacts and most strange of all the seas haunted by the shark skinned drowned who are preserved by the poisonous liquid.

Add to this world a cast of largely ruthless and self serving folk with the noteable exception of the main hero. A former soldier betrayed by his emperor and living in exile. His struggles to rescue his daughter make the central thread of this tale.
That said, the most compelling figure is a sociapathic scientist who is determined to unlock the mystery of the Unmers powers. When I say determined that is perhaps the understatement of the century and he will allow nothing and no one to stand in his way! This sets up the confrontation between two equally resourceful men that will, I guess, run for a further two volumes.

There were a couple of minor flaws that just (but only just) stopped me giving this the full 5 stars. However I am reluctant to give too much detail as they will act as major spoilers. I will go as far as saying one scene/ event seemed a bit contrived to me to give our hero some nice toys to play with and the ending felt a bit abrupt but I would put this on your to read list. It was satisfyingly different. It was at times impossible to put down and generally I didn't have a scooby as to what the hell was going to happen next! It also had that hard core and edgy feel, full of human misery and suffering (so sensitive readers beware)

I will be watching out for news of the sequel.
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on 6 April 2014
Despite having some great ideas, a unique setting, some cleverly done hair's breadth escapes, and a good sense of a larger looming threat for later books, this novel never quite lived up to it's promise for me.

I really liked the central premise of a fantasy world slowly drowning in poisonous seas, where cities are half under the brine and there are great creepy scenes where characters row through mouldering palaces and trawl for 'trove' (magical treasures left behind by the somewhat elvish seeming non-human 'Unmer' civilisation that predated the present human civilisations and caused the brine to rise). The central character, Granger, is well drawn and gains sympathy as the book goes on due to suffering some really, really nasty set-backs. The villain, Maskelyn, is also a cool character, a scientist and magician, as well as being a totally ruthless gangster, whilst at the same time being a genuinely loving father and husband - in his own sick way.

On the down side, I felt that the writing was only average, not bad, but not great either, but more than that for all it's amazing ideas the setting never quite lived up to it's promise. The really great fantasy and scifi settings for me achieve a sense of uniqueness even down to how people speak, turns of phrase, and a sense of a deep history. The setting here (not sure what it's called as a whole?) felt very generic except for the rising brine aspect. There was no use of language to make it feel unique, a place unto itself. Indeed even the character names felt a bit too thrown together, some sound sort of Scottish (Tom Granger for example), other's sort of Chinese ('Emperor Hu'). The past is barely referenced beyond the fact that the Unmer used to rule, and the present is very hazy too, with nation names mentioned very rarely. Also it's hard to get a grip on what the tech level of the setting is - it seems to be cannons and wheel-lock firearms basically, but there are other things that suggest higher tech levels too.

Whilst I liked the basic story, it did feel very down-at-heel, with interesting characters (the other Gravediggers for example) added then tossed aside too quickly, and the end of the book felt rushed and fraught with anti-climax.

There are also an annoying amount of typos.

I think I will buy and read the second book however, to see if it adds more to the okay foundations laid here. Almost a four star book for me, slightly knocked down for the reasons given above.
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on 6 October 2014
I could not put this book down. Gripping and with twists and turns, full of suspense and kept me wanting more with every page. Was disappointed when I finished it. Had not heard of Alan Campbell before but have just bought all his books. I cannot wait for any sequels and need to know what has happened to Granger and his daughter. Wow is all I can say. Thanks for a great read.
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on 12 May 2012
This is the first book I've read by Alan Campbell and goodness me but its a cracker. Combine the baroque inventiveness of China Mieville's New Crobuzon and magic-tinged action and grit of Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen and a tinge of Dune's science-fantasy elements and you may get an idea of what this is all about. The narrative sucks you in, the protagonist is outstanding, as are the villains and the world-building wonderfully fresh in its imaginativeness and depth.

One of the other reviwers complained that the last act is weak. After the break-neck pace of the first two=thirds of the book, the pace does slacken a little towards the end as the author starts to set things up for the sequels, so the narrative is a little less taut but I wouldn't call that a weakness at all. The ending certainly does leave one chomping at the bit for the next installment. This is a great big fun read for those looking for fantasy with a little oomphf!
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