REVIEW: The Sea King by CL Wilson
Trigger warning: Sexual violence
Dear CL Wilson,
I listened to the first book in your Weathermages of Mystral series (The Winter King) and have been waiting with bated breath for this book ever since. When I opened it on my reader and saw the page count was 500 I was even happier.
The Sea King is a book that uses all of it’s nearly 500 pages to tell the story and I was so happy you didn’t cut yourself short to fit into an arbitrary ‘ideal’ book length.
I’ve been having difficulty reading this year and a book which causes me to stay up late because I just have to keep reading stands out. The Sea King was such a book. I was engrossed in the story from the beginning and stayed that way until the final page. There were some sections which had me on the edge of my seat with my heart in my throat. One section in particular was quite difficult to read. It takes place well into the book so I’m reluctant to say too much because I don’t want to give away spoilers but on the other hand, I think readers need to know that there is sexual violence in the book (not by the hero). While I don’t think it was “torture porn” it was a relatively large section of the story and it’s not a one-off. There will be readers for whom it is just too much.
Note: Spoilers for The Winter King follow.
When we left Mystral at the end of book one, Khamsin and Wynter were happily married and expecting their first child. The kingdoms of Summerlea and Wintercraig are ruled by them and Prince Falcon has been banished from the kingdom. For their assistance in fighting the Ice God, Calbernan men are due to arrive from the south seas to court Summerlander and Winterfolk women for three months. Prince Dilys Merymidion, the son of the Calbernan queen will be courting one of the three “Seasons” of Summerlea – the Princesses Autumn, Spring and Summer. Summer, according to their research, is the weakest in power of the three Seasons and is quiet and shy, albeit very friendly and sweet. However, Dilys’s wife will bear the next Queen of Calberna and needs to be very strong and powerful so the recommendation from Calbernan advisors is that Dilys should choose from Autumn (a renowned beauty) or Spring.
Summer however has been hiding her actual power for almost her whole life. She is extremely powerful as an event in her childhood demonstrated well to her. Since then, she has been strictly keeping a lid on her abilities and avoiding strong emotional ties where possible. Losing control of her magic due to an emotional outburst (such as when strong feelings are present) is deadly. Added to that, all of the Seasons are worried about the madness which afflicted their father. After the death of their mother, the king lost the plot and became insane with grief. All three of the girls are worried that madness is hereditary and none more so than Summer.
So, even though it is obvious from the beginning that Summer and Dilys share a special connection, for most of the book, Summer refuses him. If she loves him and loses him, she would never be able to control her power. She is terrified of hurting others, most especially those she loves.
Very early in the book, readers are also made aware that there is a pirate called The Shark tormenting Calbernan shipping and, apparently targeting House Merymidion in particular. Calbernans have special affinity for water – they have gills and can breathe underwater and are unaffected by water pressure so can dive to great depths. However, The Shark has been torturing and drowning Calbernans and this is extremely worrying. Readers also learn that The Shark is in league with a slaver by the name of Mur Balal. And Mur Balal is also in league with a Calbernan of high rank who has his own agenda which does not include Dilys getting married to a Season – so a plan is made to kidnap all three princesses.
This knowledge lends a certain tension to the courtship process. The reader knows something of what’s coming, even though the characters do not and an underlying dread infuses the pages as the story progresses.
Summer initially uses her powers to wipe Dilys’s memories of a romantic encounter they have and Dilys begins his courtship of Autumn and Spring. But he keeps being drawn to Summer. And she, despite all the very good reasons to keep away from him, is increasingly drawn to him. Eventually, Khamsin, Autumn and Spring conspire against her to facilitate Dilys’s courtship of her and they begin spending regular time together. Dilys is, by this time, convinced she is everything he needs in a wife, everything he would ever want in a mate and, as an added and delightfully unexpected bonus, she is also everything Calberna needs too. But as Summer’s feelings for Dilys grow, she becomes more and more convinced it would be too dangerous to be his wife.
Their courtship takes a fair chunk of page time and readers get to see them get to know one another and begin to share secrets and little intimacies, to laugh and enjoy each other’s company. There is still tension because Summer has yet to be convinced it could ever be safe to marry Dilys and so the story has some wonderfully romantic interludes (some of which involve kissing but not all) but still draws the reader on.
Then some really bad things happen. Really bad.
When Summer is free again and with Dilys, they are necessarily much closer than ever before. However, given what Summer had been through I was still not quite ready for the speed at which they progressed to lovemaking. In the end, I had to go with magic as the only excuse for it turning out okay. As Dilys explains to Summer early on, Calbernans have a symbiotic kind of magic and through touch and physical intimacy, they are able to relieve grief and sadness and share love and joy in a way which is supernatural. It was still a little bit too soon for me and it jarred. Also, there wasn’t enough of Summer’s emotional recovery. There were some things which were obviously difficult for her after she was free again but I’d have appreciated a little more time spent on this to do her justice.
The tension ramps up again when Dilys and Summer go to Calberna and once again my heart was in my throat and once again I had to keep reading until everything was okay. While this book is about far more than feels, I did have all the feels while reading.
You are strong. Life and magic and strength flows through your veins. You are a wellspring of power, a queen of all waters. All the life and energy and vitality in every ocean, every sea, every river, lake and stream lives in you. And if you need more, then take it from me. What is mine is yours without question or limits. So long as there is breath in my lungs, you will never stop breathing. So long as my heart beats, yours will never stop. Whatever pain you have, let me bear it for you. I offer my strength and magic and life force to nourish your own. Stay with me, moa kiri. Live for me.”
The worldbuilding is fantastic. There was probably only one thing I would have liked more detail on (too spoilery to say here – I plan to DM some friends to see if I missed something) but otherwise the world was fully articulated, with various languages, cultures and religions and shown at different societal levels too, all without any info-dump.
I did have some discomfort about some of the adjectives used to describe the Calbernans – who are a Polynesian type people. Some of those adjectives “barbarically handsome”, “shockingly primitive”, “exotic”. They are not the only brown-skinned people in the book however. Summerlanders are brown-skinned too. I imagine them as Latinx in complexion rather than black from their descriptions. Winterfolk are fair, a Germanic/Viking/Norse kind of ethnic group. However, Summerlanders and Winterfolk share similar customs and styles of dress. Calbernan men wear “shumas” which are a calf-length sarong-style skirt and go around bare-chested. The only black-skinned people in the book that I spotted (I admit I could have missed some I suppose) were, unfortunately, slaves. That said, I expect the next book The Jaguar King, to feature more black-skinned people so I’m holding my judgement there. Slavery is explicitly condemned in the book and the Calbernans in particular are very active about freeing slaves whenever possible and they do not practice slavery themselves. In fact, they are extremely sensitive to consent and free will for reasons which become clear later in the book. At one point Summer’s eyes are described as “exotic” too but it is mostly the Calbernans who are othered. I’m not qualified enough about this stuff to render judgement on it. I’m interested to know what people of colour have to say about it. All I can say is that some things stood out to me and raised questions about representation. At the same time, I’m a white person so it’s not like it was personal to me and I was able to enjoy the book (thoroughly) anyway. I appreciated the diversity evident in the book but I can’t really say whether there are potentially hurtful stereotypes mixed in with the good and what difference that makes to the equation of it all.
I loved that the Calbernan society is matriarchal. That said, there was still a hint of patriarchy about how the men protect the women. Calbernan women are the political power and have strong magic but they are not Amazon warriors either. They leave the fighting to the men. Still, I appreciated that the society depicted was different to that of Summerlea or Wintercraig and girl power is always a good thing, amirite?
“Our women—our wives—are the heart of Calberna. Without them, Calbernan males could not function. We would die. Just as you would die without the heart that beats in your chest.”
He reached out slowly, laid three fingers lightly on the thin fabric that covered her left breast. Her breath caught in her throat. She stared at him in shocked silence. She made no attempt to move or to remove his hand. There was nothing sexual or teasing about his touch this time. It stunned her all the same.
“But for all its strength, the heart is a vulnerable thing,” he continued. “It needs must be surrounded by a cage of bone to protect it. At all cost, at all times, the heart must be protected.” His hand turned over. Now it was the back of his fingers that caressed her skin just above the neckline of her gown, the touch feather light, impossibly gentle. “Calberna’s sons are those bones. We are the spear, the sword, the unbreakable shield that protects Calberna’s vulnerable heart. It’s why we are born. It’s what we live for.”
Still, Dilys is very much an alpha male when it comes to courtship.
I don’t want to give too much away but there is another way that women are ascendant in Calberna and I loved that too. It was woven all through the book but the exact meaning of it was not made explicit until quite near the end. I don’t think it was just that I’m not good at subtle either that it took me all that time to work it out. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to until then.
There were some phrases in the book which felt a little out of place – “heaps and heaps” or “Don’t get me wrong”. It’s not typical high fantasy terminology and I found it occasionally jarring. But that is a very small thing indeed in an otherwise excellent story.
The Sea King is epic fantasy romance, tightly plotted and rich with deep character and solid world building – and proof that some books are worth waiting for.