Child of a Hidden Sea
A. M. Dellamonica
Lambda Award Nominee
Portal fantasy typically has a strong element of wish fulfillment. You, as the hero/ine, leave behind a world in which you are in someway unwanted or unfulfilled and fall into a new place where you’re the most special snowflake of all—the lost heir or the answer to the prophecy or some such wonderful new and shiny destiny.
There is some of that in A Child of a Hidden Sea. Our heroine, Sophie, claims to be fairly happy as a graduate student in some natural history/biology study or other in San Francisco. She’s been adopted into a wealthy family—the kind where, when she and her brother are going to go back through the portal, their absence can be explained by an ‘out sailing’ note to her folks who are on some kind of world tour of their own.
Apparently money doesn’t buy all her happiness, because the reason she discovers the portal into the other world is because she’s been stalking her birth mother.
I have to admit to having some trouble relating at Sophie at this point, because as the mother of an adoptive son (though atypical, in that we conceived him through artificial insemination, but I still adopted him and there is another ‘parent’-type figure lurking out there who my son could potentially desire to track down) I dislike this assumption/trope. The assumption being, that somehow a person is incomplete without the full knowledge of the person(s) who provided sperm and/or egg to the process of their conception. That, only when this deep and horrible hole is filled, all will be understood about themselves and their personality and their place in the universe, that would, otherwise, with only the love of the people who raised them, go unresolved.
There’s some handwaving that Dellamonica does to try to assuage that in terms of Sophie being very much of the mind that her brother is her brother regardless of blood, but it’s not enough, because Sophie goes behind her parents’ backs in order to go after her birth parents, to whom, of course, she feels an instant kinship.
That said, there are a lot of cool things about this book: the fact that the otherworld is nearly entirely sea, a group of island-states, each with their own culture, and that the biggest political body is actually the “Fleet,” a loosely aligned group of sailing ships. The magic is nifty—a play on the use of True Name, that has you losing a bit of yourself with each spell woven. Sophia redeems herself, too, by being so very curious about the new world around her, taking field notes and such about… everything. Her science-y nature is fun, too, because for once in a novel when given the chance to return through the portal, the heroine makes a very detailed list of all the things she might need and takes them in a duffle bag. Her preparedness is surprisingly satisfying and refreshing.
The only other note of curiousness from me is that it’s not entirely clear to me what about this book made it a strong contender for the Lammy. Sophie’s brother is gay and his gayness does figure into to the plot, making him more at risk when he’s been kidnapped, but… this doesn’t feel like an especially queer book to me. I believe A. M. Dellamonica identifies as a lesbian, so I guess that’s enough? Though in the other two Lambda nominees I’ve read/sampled so far — Afterparty and Full Fathom Five — the main characters are lesbian and trans* respectively, and in A Child of the Hidden Sea the gay character is a sidekick. I suppose in this day and age when being gay or lesbian is fairly mainstreamed the queerness of the story is, likewise, going to be understated. Progress, perhaps? Perhaps.