Book Review: Sea Change, S. M. Wheeler

A savvy bookseller from A Room of One’s Own sold me Sea Change with basically one line: It’s a love story, with tentacles. The power of skilled booksellers who can size their customers up at a glance should not be underestimated — and, not to hammer the point in, but this is yet another feature that isn’t provided on Amazon. There’s no way I would have noticed this book in the sea of reading I have to do if someone hadn’t taken the time to single it out for me, and I’m glad she did, because it was right up my alley.

Sea Change is a love story, but it’s also a fantasy, and it’s also an epic adventure, and it’s also a tale of monsters. All of these things are tangled into each other, because this is a story about a girl who falls in love with a kraken, in a rich, deep, friendly kind of way — the exact nature of their relationship is complex and sticky. It’s one of the first things that stands out about the text, because this is a YA that defies a lot of conventional narratives about what YA ‘should’ be and instead challenges the reader with a monstrous relationship where the actual characteristics of the relationship are nebulous.

When her relationship is discovered, her father bribes a trader to capture the kraken at sea and sell him far, far away, sending our young heroine off on an adventure to attempt to discover her lost friend and free him. She finds him withering away in a circus filled with mystical creatures, and the circus owner insists that he will only free the kraken in exchange for a magical coat…sending her off on an epic adventure to free the tailor who can make the coat, which lands her in the camp of brigands, a witch, and a donkey turned into a boy.

This story is a little bananas, is what I am saying, and yet, it all hangs together beautifully. It falls into the best fairytale tradition with a full complement of weird, mystical characters, unexpected helpers, and really downright eerie and creepy scenes. But it’s also refreshingly modern and pushy, with the presence of a magical monster in the midst of the story and the complex relationship between human and creature treated as entirely normal, even as everyone around them appears deeply confused and sometimes horrified by it.

Sea Change queers fantasy and relationships in intriguing, huge ways. What do love and friendship mean? Would you do anything to save a friend? What kinds of relationships do you have that are judged — and what kinds of relationships do you judge, as an outsider who perhaps doesn’t understand them? It’s a book that takes the traditional myth of the monstrous, terrible kraken and turns it on its head, which I love, not just because I love tentacles but because I love challenges and reworkings of monster stories. I love tales where monsters are friends, and friends are foes, where you don’t know what has horrible sharp bladed teeth and what is, at heart, just a friendly, gentle ally.

It’s also beautifully written, with a captivating, sweeping style that makes me feel like I’m out on the moors and trudging through the dread woods and sitting on the seashore with waves crashing all around me. While the book is written in the classic tradition of lonely children oppressed by rather cold, uncaring parents, it’s a modern take on the gothic tradition, and it’s a delicious one. This is no crudely pasted sea monster slapped into a gothic environment, no Victorian girl slapped into a monster story. It’s a seamlessly woven, complicated story that is also capable of great analysis and fascinating insights.

You’ll come for the tentacles, but you will stay for this heroine’s journey, for a coming of age story, for the love, and for the experience of loss and the emotions that overcome many of us as we start to age up and out of the worlds we grew up in, and understand that our lives can’t remain in stasis, no matter how much we wish that were the case. Sea Change is, as the title implies, about the huge shifts that happen in our lives as we transition from childhood to adulthood, and while most of us don’t experience lives quite as colourful or unique as this one, there’s still something to relate to, here, in a novel that is about what happens when we grow up and can’t shelter behind our dreams of a different world anymore.

It’s also about gender, in huge and important ways that I won’t spoil, but I will say that the book has some thought-provoking insight, commentary, and expression on the subject of gender, identity, and embodiment.

I totally loved this book, and I hope you do too — it’s one of my breakout YA faves this year, and I’ll definitely be coming back to it again and again because I felt like it had so much to offer.