Alyx Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books, June 2014) is the kind of fantasy adventure novel you used to see a lot more of — not technically YA, but certainly something my 14- or 15-year-old self would have had no trouble reading. But do not make the mistake that this is some kind of throwback. It’s a delightful portal fantasy that brings the form up to date in several important ways.
Twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa, fresh off a difficult first contact with her birth mother, suddenly finds herself floating at sea, desperately trying to save the life of an aunt she’s just met. It turns out that she’s been swept away to Stormwrack, a richly developed fantasy world of island nations and dashing sailors. She is promptly sent back, but manages to return, bringing her brother Bram with her. Adventures naturally ensue.
There are many ways in which this take on portal fantasy is so refreshingly modern. As fantasies age, the real world acquires its own layer of strangeness: for modern readers, the Pevensies’ England is as uncanny as Narnia. Not so here. Sophie and Bram are normal adults who have natural and recognizable responses to their fantastic surroundings. Those responses are not sentimental or unquestioning: they actively interrogate Stormwrack, Bram trying to figure out its location, Sophie arriving with a truckload of modern technology and studying its biota.
Stormwrack too comes across as real: it has wildlife, and politics, and economics. People exist and have agency. (And sex.) Also, gay people exist (as does homophobia). It does not exist to be an adventurers’ playground, though adventures certainly occur.
Fantasy frequently separates children from their parents so that they may go on and have adventures without adult supervision. There are lots of orphans, children sent to the countryside, living with distracted uncles, unloving step-parents and so forth: reasons, in other words, for escape.
But such scenarios are also as uncanny as the Pevensies’ England; that’s not what we do with children nowadays. Sophie is adopted; her story is very much about encountering her birth parents—a very modern concern for adoptees. Jennifer, who devoured this book, is adopted as well; she cannot recall ever reading a book whose protagonist mirrors her own background. Of such small details are books made important.