DNF Review: The Kraken Sea, E. Catherine Tobler (2016)

August 3rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Maybe fans of Jackson’s Unreal Circus will get more out of it?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

The woman laughed and it was the sound of falling down a rabbit hole and ending up someplace you never expected and didn’t entirely understand.

— 2.5 stars —

DNF at 66%.

Abandoned at a foundling hospital in New York as a newborn, fifteen-year-old Jackson knows little of the world beyond his small slice of it. He’s reasonably well cared for by the nuns – especially Sister Jerome Grace, to whom he’s taken a special liking – yet he’s very much alone, set apart and ostracized because of his differences. Though he tries to hide his true nature, in times of stress Jackson has trouble concealing his scaled skin; the tentacles that wriggle under the surface of human limbs; and the gaping maw that can literally swallow boys his size whole.

No doubt Jackson’s long since given up on ever being adopted – so imagine his surprise when a mysterious woman sends for “a boy like him” all the way from San Francisco. Jackson boards a train for the Pacific and, after a weird and destructive stop at the Chicago World’s Fair (the year being 1893), he joins Macquarie’s, Cressida’s home-slash-mansion-slash-estate-slash-saloon. It’s filled with fantastical creatures like Jackson – human, but also not – as well as intrigue and shifting alliances, which threaten to upend Jackson’s newfound normalcy.

With its carnivalesque vibe, The Kraken Sea seems like a book I should love. And indeed, a few early scenes really piqued my excitement. Chief among them: Jackson’s unplanned stop at a sideshow tent in the White City, where he’s enraged to find a tentacled woman imprisoned in a filthy cage. Cue images of Menagerie’s Delilah Marlow, one of my all-time favorite heroes. There’s a kraken that eats shadows; a fox fur stole that’s actually alive; and stone gargoyles that leap into the air and devour would-be patrons who try to sneak into rival Bell’s without paying.

And while there are plenty of great elements here, it feels like they were all thrown together, creating a jumbled and confusing mess. The plot lacks tension; characters pop up at weird times and places, with little explanation; and there really isn’t much character development to speak of. I read a little more than half the book in one day, but couldn’t bring myself to return to it the next – not when I have so many (potentially) great books waiting in the wings. I feel a little silly DNF’in such a short book, but I just didn’t care enough about Jackson, Mae, and Cressida to give it the old college try.

The story could benefit from a more thorough polishing, I think, and might read better as a full-length novel. Some of the ideas could use more time and attention. As it stands, though, The Kraken Sea feels like a hodgepodge of half-explored concepts; way too busy, with only the thinnest thread of a plot holding them together.

I guess it also doesn’t help that this story is set in an already established universe (told through multiple short stories) with which I am wholly unfamiliar. So…I don’t know? Maybe existing fans of Jackson’s Unreal Circus will get more out of it than I did?

(This review is also available on Library Thing and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Foster, Cressida’s driver, is Chinese. Macquarie’s is one block north of Chinatown; consequently, Foster and Jackson run many of their errands in Chinatown, and the residents pay Cressida for her protection. Beth, one of the Fates, is described as “brown-skinned.” Some of Bell’s performers are either trans women or men in drag.

Animal-friendly elements: Not a whole lot. There are some potentially animal-friendly elements (along the lines of Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie), but they’re never fully developed (or at least not in the first 66% of the book, after which I DNF’ed). For example, during his trip out West, Jackson’s train stops in Chicago for the World’s Fair. In a carnival tent filled with oddities, Jackson meets a woman – a tentacled creature like himself – miserable and imprisoned in a filthy cage. Enraged, he shifts into his “monster” self; rips the door from the cage, freeing the woman; and strangles her captor.

Adopted by a woman named Cressida, he goes to work at her mansion/saloon, Macquarie’s, which is a showplace for strange and unusual creatures. Jackson wonders if it isn’t just another prison, but the idea’s dropped fairly quickly. (Everyone is an employee, so it’s a little different.) When he first meets her, Cressida is wearing a fox fur stole – that’s actually alive! Likewise, the bronze statues that sit at the front door will come alive and devour any visitors they deem unfit to enter. (And so forth. The story is filled with fantastical creatures.)


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