Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Ripples in the Sand by Helen Hollick

I might have mentioned before that I've decided to review one self-published/assisted self-published/small press book a month as a deliberate policy because, although as a reader I really don't care where my books come from, as a writer I'm well aware that self-published and indie press writing needs both more exposure and, let's face it, more constructive criticism. I'm happy to supply both if I like the sound of the book.

This month's offering is part of Helen Hollick's blog tour for her latest in the Sea Witch Voyages series, a novel entitled Ripples in the Sand. As you'll see from my review this novel takes me into some unfamiliar waters, both in terms of the historical era and also because it incorporates supernatural elements into what could easily be a straightforward historical. According to her website Hollick's a seasoned author with more than a dozen books in publication, and the Sea Witch series was a bit of a departure from her usual interests; but I can see a common thread in that Hollick evidently has a penchant for Big Stories. So what did I think of the book?

The review

Being asked to review a book that’s in the middle of a series is always tricky, because the author knows the characters, her fans know the characters, and I, reviewer, do not. So it took me quite a while to get into Ripples in the Sand, despite an exciting first chapter that set up a number of complications: a risky merchant venture, an even more risky bit of smuggling on the side, a sick wife on board and a Navy frigate in pursuit, presumably not friendly pursuit.

And I found myself bemused by the witchy prologue: a conversation between Tiola, a white witch who also happens to be the aforementioned sick wife, and Tethys, the Sea Goddess who seems to be permanently in a bad mood. Over time I learned that Tethys wanted Jesamiah, through whose eyes much of the story is told, and was making Tiola sick as a result; rather unfortunate since Jesamiah was captain of the Sea Witch and therefore likely to spend most of his life at sea.

It was this impression of two characters whose lives were completely at odds that haunted me through the first half of the novel. They seemed to be eternally out of sync, with no physical relationship, two ships on completely different courses; Tiola preoccupied with some kind of witchy battle and Jesamiah concerned about his ship, his cargo, and his reluctant involvement in the trouble created by the Jacobites, supporter of the Pretender King, James, and enemies of the King who’s actually on the throne, George I.

The feeling that the two characters were leading separate lives increased when Jesamiah, on seeing Tiola giving a kiss to another man, threw a complete wobbly and bedded the next available woman. Huh? Isn’t Tiola his Twoo Luv?

And then somewhere about halfway, the witchy stuff started to make sense (or as much sense as witchy stuff ever does; I’m not a big fan of magical storylines) and, what’s more, I began to enjoy the Jesamiah plotline with its references to the political situation of the time (1719) with a not entirely popular Protestant king and a strong Catholic faction backing the return of James to the British throne. It’s a slice of British history that I haven’t read enough about, and I’m really starting to get interested in the 18th century as a less, shall we say, over-explored aspect of our recent past.

Where Hollick really excels, in my opinion, is in the battle and other action scenes, which were fast-paced and well plotted, believably gruesome without dwelling too lovingly on the less pleasant aspects of fighting. I’ll add to that her ability to weave a complex plot involving many players, with real history mixed in with invented characters. The supernatural plotline seemed to pale by comparison with the vividness of the main story.

As this was an ARC I don’t want to get into the writing, as I presume that the places I thought editing was necessary—more in the first half of the book than the second—were addressed. There were one or two points, especially where the moving about of the ship was concerned, when I felt Hollick was overly concerned to use her research rather than move the plot forward, but that’s a subjective matter; many readers love a thick layer of historical detail.

When it comes to rating I would probably go for about a 3.7, given that it’s difficult to judge a book in a series out of context. My highest scores go for the descriptions of the political situation of that time and place, the descriptions of the sea battles and the sheer pace of the better passages. If I’d read through the whole series and had time to warm to Jesamiah and Tiola I might have liked Ripples in the Sand more from the outset; they are not an immediately lovable pair, but they are certainly not boring.

If you're a Helen Hollick fan and you're looking for the next stop in the blog tour, it's chez Lou Graham. Thanks to SilverWood Books for inviting me to be a part of the tour, and if I'm going to go for another Hollick book it would almost certainly be Harold the King (UK title)/The Chosen King (US title) as it promises more lively action based on a complex historical situation.