The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster
Tor.com Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4668-9193-7, 134pp, E-book, USD$2.99/CAN$2.99. January 2016. Cover art by Cynthia Sheppard.
The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster is one of Tor.com Publishing’s January 2016 novella offerings. It caught my eye for its amazingly striking cover (seriously, look at how gorgeous that is, I mean, look at that thing), and then Carl Engle-Laird mentioned on Twitter that it had a) ships, b) raiders, c) magic, and d) queer women. I fairly leapt at the opportunity to read an ARC.
Dragon Ships are raiding up and down the islands. They have attacked the Windspeakers’ temple at Tash and taken an important icon. This icon is the centre of the Windspeakers’ abilities to cooperate, and to divert the vast amounts of damage that can be done by a young Windspeaker who hasn’t yet been connected to the icon, and through it, to the other Windspeakers. Shina is the only survivor from the attack at Tash, and she’s determined to stop the Dragon Ships and get the icon back.
Tazir’s the captain of a fishing boat that sometimes carries passengers. She’s seen her share of storms and dangers, but she’s got no respect for Windspeakers who go to the temples — why would you let anyone cut out your eyes and let them tell you what to do with your power? And she’s not too inclined to risk her ship or her neck for anyone. But when Shina shows up masquerading as a rich girl (with money to spend) and wants passage, she’s willing to take the money and not ask too many questions. At least not until Shina brings a storm up from her belly and sets it on the Dragon Ships.
Not once, but twice.
The Drowning Eyes is not, alas, greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, it has some pretty great parts. The prose is brisk, tending to elegant at times; the dialogue is vivid and engaging:
“Bad things happen every damn day of my life!” Tazir snapped. “But me and Kodin and the kid down there, we’re prepared when they fucking happen!”
“Oh, so you like Shina now?”
“Yeah,” Tazir said. “I have a tendency to like people who make themselves fucking useful.”
The characters, now. The characterisation here is good damn — or the characters are of a kind that I’m primed to empathise with. They’re compelling. I wanted to see more of Shina, young and desperate, somewhat sheltered, but firm in her determination to recover the idol — a determination only reaffirmed when one of her storms inflicts unintentional destruction. Tazir, irritable, mercenary, absolutely sure of herself — and not always right, as we see from her relationships with her mate, Kodin, and her quartermaster and lover, Chaqal. The worldbuilding is lightly-drawn but fascinating: Windspeakers who can alter the weather, an economy based around sea-transport between islands, the impression of a wider world just visible on the edges of the narrative. (And a BELIEVABLE SHIP: the technical sailorly details feel right.)
But the narrative itself is uneven, oddly balanced. Perhaps it’s that I haven’t read a lot at novella-length, but it feels as though some important things are elided or passed over too lightly. Smash a jar and swallow some storms! Cool, okay. Jump overboard to retrieve an icon somewhere on the bottom of three to ten fathoms of water! …And then — hey waitaminute — we next meet our characters in the final chapter, some years later. Shina is a Windspeaker, long returned to a temple: Tazir is older and crankier, split up with her lover and on the verge of being abandoned by her crew.
I don’t feel the story ends so much as stops: none of the characters have emotional arcs that resolve to my satisfaction. I don’t feel that glorious sensation of stand back, thematic argument being made here, when you might not recognise all the argument but you feel it’s there. When you feel it resonate.
I had higher expectations than perhaps I ought. The Drowning Eyes is a fun quick read, and I don’t regret reading it one whit. (And the cover is still one of the shiniest covers I’ve ever seen.) But it didn’t carry me off into raptures with its excellence — and that makes me more disappointed than the novella deserves.
Good read, though. Still recommend it.
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