Books, Reviews

Book review – THE KRAKEN SEA, by E. Catherine Tobler


The official blurb:

Fifteen-year-old Jackson is different from the other children at the foundling hospital. Scales sometimes cover his arms. Tentacles coil just below his skin. Despite this Jackson tries to fit in with the other children. He tries to be normal for Sister Jerome Grace and the priests. But when a woman asks for a boy like him, all that changes. His name is pinned to his jacket and an orphan train whisks him across the country to Macquarie’s.

At Macquarie’s, Jackson finds a home unlike any he could have imagined. The bronze lions outside the doors eat whomever they deem unfit to enter, the hallways and rooms shift and change at will, and Cressida – the woman who adopted him – assures him he no longer has to hide what he is. But new freedoms hide dark secrets. There are territories, allegiances, and a kraken in the basement that eats shadows.

As Jackson learns more about the new world he’s living in and about who he is, he has to decide who he will stand with: Cressida, the woman who gave him a home and a purpose, or Mae, the black-eyed lion tamer with a past as enigmatic as his own. The Kraken Sea is a fast paced adventure full of mystery, Fates, and writhing tentacles just below the surface, and in the middle of it all is a boy searching for himself.

My review:

The Kraken Sea is an exquisitely crafted story full of magic and horror, love and lust, pain and longing. It begins with Jackson, an orphan who was once found in a box, getting on a train that will carry him to a new life. That first chapter, with Jackson experiencing the thrill of train travel for the first time, is brilliantly written. For a teenage boy who has grown up in an orphanage, there’s a sudden sense of vast and tempting possibilities, adventure, and freedom he’s never had before. Jackson is certainly not a cardboard cutout “good boy” (or even a boy at all… really), but his longing for a new life, his sense of otherness, and his inability to conform and fit in, is perfectly captured right from the start, and really made me fall in love with the character.

Early on in the book, there’s a moment when we find out what Jackson actually is, and it’s an amazing scene: satisfying and exciting, because he finally allows himself to be what he is, and also terrifying because of what he is capable of in his true form.

From that point on, the story burrows deeper and deeper into Tobler’s dark and mysterious fictional world: a world that feels so vast and ancient and deep that it gives me a sense of vertigo. There’s a satisfying and titillating richness to the mythology and the backstories of the characters, but it never overpowers the tale of Jackson himself. Rather, the world reveals itself stealthily through the telling of Jackson’s story. Magic permeates every facet of life in this world, and it’s the kind of magic that is not usually learned from scrolls or books, but rather part of who you are, bound to flesh and bone.

One of the things I really love about ‘The Kraken Sea’ is that characters and places are not always who or what they seem to be at first glance: they shift and change, just like Jackson himself does. Even time and space itself is not always what it appears to be on the surface. This makes the book a haunting and gripping ride through a strange and changeable world: a world where gargoyles might eat children, where lion statues might come to life, and where very strange things lurk behind the door in a bakery’s basement.

Tobler has also written several short stories set in the same universe as ‘The Kraken Sea’, and while this books stands on its own as Jackson’s origin story, they are well worth checking out as well.

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