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When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

Felicita was born to a privileged magical family in Pelimburg, but as a woman, that means she has practically no power at all. Her family will control her life, right up to her arranged marriage, and after that, she will be controlled by her husband and his family. This is not the life that Felicita wants for herself, so when her best friend Ilven kills herself to escape her arranged marriage, Felicita follows suit—at least in appearance. She fakes her own death and runs away to the slums, where she scrubs dishes for a living. But just as Felicita is getting accustomed to her new life under the protection of the charismatic yet mysterious Dash, her world is about to be turned upside down once again. Ilven’s death has called a dark and wild magic up from the sea; Felicita’s friend’s desperate choice has disastrous consequences for all of Pelimburg. Felicita must decide where she stands—with the magical elite she used to call family or with her new family, those who want to harness this wild magic to bring down Pelimburg and its cruel caste system once and for all.

When the Sea Is Rising Red is a novel with many fascinating ideas, but something about it failed to completely win me over. I loved the fantasy world of Pelimburg, where magic wielders, vampires, and ordinary people are divided into separate classes and are constantly at odds with each other. Hellisen presents readers with characters who are then further marginalized within their own groups, like Felicita, who is a woman in a male-dominated magical family and Jannik, who is a man in a female-dominated vampire family. This certainly gives readers a series of interesting perspectives on the negative effects of a rigid social system. Then problem for me, then, lies with the characters themselves. I was never entirely sympathetic to Felicita’s problems; though I applauded her strength to fake her own death and run away from everything she’s known, she tended to be rather annoying the rest of the time. The plot did little to impress me as well, as the only truly interesting segment was at the very end of the story. I loved the worldbuilding in When the Sea is Rising Red, but unfortunately, the story itself is much less satisfying.

When the Sea Is Rising Red still appeals to fans of Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Keepers’ Tattoo by Gill Arbuthnott, and Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken.

Rating: 3.5

Review copy from publisher Macmillan

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