Exhuming the spirits – Alan Campbell’s Sea of Ghosts

Cover image of Sea of Ghosts

Cover image of Sea of Ghosts

It was one evening at the last Glasgow Eastercon that Peter Lavery, the editorial mainstay of (new) weird fiction in the 2000s, gave me a sampler for Alan Campbell‘s Scar Night. I read it and bounced (a little drunkenly as we were in a bar with other fans and authors) and raved about it. Its energy and verve reminded me of a younger China MiĆ©ville, around Perdido Street Station.

Sea of Ghosts starts a new series. After criticising the emperor publically after the disbanding of the Gravedigger unit, Thomas Granger finds himself a hunted man. Reminding the Emperor that he had his own men killed was perhaps rash. Rather than running, Granger hides in plain sight when he becomes a jailer. After six years, a mother and daughter become ‘guests’ at his establishment and he begins to take an interest in Ianthe, the daughter.

Granger has been diving in the transformative oceans (so toxic that a dip in them will turn the swimmer into one of the Drowned, merpeople with shark skin) and raising Unmer artefacts. The Unmer ruled the world before being defeated by the Emperor but left a toxic legacy rendering the natural world distinctly unnatural. Campbell navigates the oceans with steam- and sail-powered ships, mixing steampunk with the fantastic.

Maskelyne, the ostensible owner of the jails, is a collector of Unmar object but becomes very interested in Granger’s charge. Tricking him away from the small jail, Maskelyne has Granger incarcerated and kidnaps Ianthe, unaware that she is empathic and can see through other’s eyes. Granger contacts the nunnery at Haurstaf, who are ostensibly neutral, who betray him as well. When Maskelyne goes hunting for Unmer objects, he comes across a ghost ship with various articles, including some glasses which allow Ianthe to look back into the past and perhaps be observed from the past.

Maskelyne becomes increasingly convinced that the Unmer were scientific and could manipulate time and space. After Granger escapes from the Emperor’s mock trial by diving into the sea and begins his own transformation into becoming a Drowned One, he comes to Ianthe’s rescue by stealing the Emperor’s ship. Coming across a faded king, Granger is shown some of the Unmer artefacts and taught how to use them.

Campbell appears to be setting both Maskelyne and Granger as the balancing forces in the world who will be thrown together to understand it. The world is fractured, perhaps needing a balance of the humours. This series, at the moment, is less convoluted that the last one and mixes various hues together to suggest something other than grey as the world’s colour. There are one of two things that perhaps do not make entire sense at the moment but I am sure that these are hooks for future volumes.

Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, Macmillan UK, 2011

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