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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Book review: When the Sea is Rising Red

When the sea is rising red
All of Pelim will drop dead

Fellow Capetonian Cat Hellisen’s debut novel When the Sea is Rising Red is a richly woven tale set in the fantastical city of Pelimburg, where the rich stay rich, while the poor blame their misfortunes on ancient superstitions fueled by their spite for the ruling class.

Felicita Pelim was born into the city’s most influential house, but has felt like a caged bird her entire life. When her best friend Ilven throws herself off Pelim’s Leap after being doomed to an arranged marriage, Felicita fakes her own death to escape the same fate. She disguises herself as a Hob (commoner) and falls in with a motley crew led by the charming Dash. She also befriends the vampire Jannik, an alliance that would have been strictly forbidden in her old life.

Felicita believes she has finally found the freedom she has so desperately craved, until her past literally comes back to haunt her. The inhabitants of Old Town believe Ilven’s suicide has unleashed the wrath of the sea witch, whose revenge will come in the form of the Red Death. Felicita is torn between loyalty to her new friends and saving those she left behind.

Oh boy. Where do I start?

Have you ever read a book that swallows you whole and drops you into the depths hook line and sinker?

Hellisen’s Pelimburg is a finely detailed tapestry of old family histories, traditional rivalries, and a coastal city afroth with old wives tales and superstitions. It is a city where magic and mythology are real. Unicorns pull the carriages of the rich, boggerts plague the dreams of the poor, and using the power of a chemical called Scriv, War-Singers like Felicita can bend the air to their will.

Witch-sign, they said. Little eddies, like miniature storms breaking the surface of the ocean. Witch-signs rise up in great numbers, last a few minutes, and then disappear. When the whirlpools are gone, all that’s left is floating petals. Black sea roses. Anomalies.

Pelimburg’s cobbled streets and tea shops are easy to get lost in, but the shadows are reminiscent of the real world. In South Africa the gap between rich and poor is ever widening, and while the inhabitants of Old Town may be accepting of love between girls and boys of the same sex, the reality is often very different. And as hard as getting your heart broken over and over again till the right one comes along is, it’s still better than the thought of arranged marriages which are still a life sentence for many women.

Like Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders, When the Sea is Rising Red draws upon the ocean and it’s mysteries. And like Hobb, Hellisen has masterfully crafted a world where old families vie for position while those at the bottom live and die by the sea.

It’s hard to classify the novel as YA as its very mature in parts. That said, one only has to look at the maturity and levels of violence in books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and it becomes clear that young adult fiction is a very different animal than it used to be. It can also be argued that the gorgeous imagery could be equally enjoyed by an older audience.

I think we can all be proud that Cat Hellisen is one of ours.

Read an excerpt from the novel at

Read the prologue, Maiden, Mother, Crone, here.

When the Sea is Rising Red launches in South Africa this month.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    May 3rd, 2012 @18:04 #

    Thanks for reading and reviewing, Sally. :D You're a star!


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