Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.
Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly’s quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.”
Oh, I do love me some dark fairy tales, and this one certainly fits the bill. Fantastic creatures, witches, trolls, bandits—all of those staples that you see in Grimm’s stories appear in this novel. It’s not only what shows up, but what happens when they do, that pushes this tale into the truly dark areas that it attains. The synopsis above hints at the price that Lilly pays to the witch, but nothing will prepare you for what Lilly gives up in order to find Octavius.
And it’s this act that begins the exploration of identity that suffuses much of the novel. I suppose it’s no coincidence that Lilly’s quest begins when she’s eighteen, a traditional benchmark for becoming an adult. At this point, Lilly loses her oldest friend, leaves home for the first time, and surrenders a part of herself for aid. She reinvents herself more than once in the course of the story, but it’s interesting to note that many of her core qualities do not change. No matter whom she interacts with or how they treat her, she reciprocates with politeness. She also accepts responsibility for her choices and actions.
The biggest aspect of her personality, however, is her compassion. This sort of goes hand in hand with her polite nature, but in the course of her journey, she learns to extend it beyond mere cordiality into true caring. For this, my favorite part of the book was her growing friendship with Horace, the witch’s servant. He’s not immediately likeable, but Lilly learns to look past his gruffness to see who he is and to appreciate him for it.
My only small quibble with the book is that the section where Lilly is with the bandits seems to go on a little too long. Up to that point, her quest led to her different people and places fairly regularly, but she stays with them for several months. On the good side, this gives Lilly the opportunity to bond with Horace; on the other hand, the story’s momentum stalls out quite a bit. It’s not that the novel is less interesting during this sequence, because it’s still a powerful story. It’s just that it’s noticeable that the pacing of the novel has drastically changed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel for its willingness to weave together the ugly and the lovely, the gentle with the cruel, and the hope and the loss. It puts me in mind of the quote (and pardon my terrible paraphrasing) about thinking as a child while still a child, but putting away childish things as an adult. Sea Change is a difficult book, not because of any faults of writing or storytelling, but because it forces you to confront hard questions about identity, gender, and love. I recommend that you accept the challenge of reading it and forming your own opinions.