Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sea Witch - Helen Hollick

About the book

The time: the golden age of piracy - 1716 
The Place: the Pirate Round - from South Africa to the Islands of the Caribbean.

Escaping the bullying of his elder brother, from the age of fifteen Jesamiah Acorne has been a pirate, with only two loves - his ship and his freedom. But his life is to change when he and his crew unsuccessfully attack a merchant ship off the coast of South Africa. He is to meet Tiola Oldstagh, an insignificant girl or so he thinks - until she rescues him from a vicious attack, and almost certain death, by pirate hunters. And then he discovers what she really is; a healer and a midwife - and a white witch. Her name, an anagram of "all that is good." Jesamiah and Tiola become lovers, despite her guardian, Jenna Pendeen's disapproval, but Stefan van Overstratten a Cape Town Dutchman, also wants Tiola as his wife, and Jesamiah's half brother Phillipe Mereno, is determined to seek revenge for a stolen ship and the insult of being cuckolded. When the call of the sea and an opportunity to commandeer a beautiful ship - Sea Witch - is put in Jesamiah's path, he must make a choice between his life as a pirate or his love for Tiola; he wants both - but Mereno and Von Overstratten want him dead. In trouble, imprisoned in the darkness and stench that is the lowest part of his brother's ship, can Tiola with her Craft, and the aid of Roux, Jesamiah's quartermaster and the rest of his loyal crew, save her pirate? And can she keep Jesamiah safe from another who wants him for herself? From the elemental being that is Tethys, Goddess of the Sea? A charismatic pirate rogue and a white witch - what better combination for a story of romance and high-sea fantasy adventure

422 pages (paperback)
Book 1 in The Sea Witch Chronicles
Published on: June 1, 2006
Author’s webpage

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book to review.


I don’t generally accept self-published books for review. I usually strike out with self-published books so I gave up trying quite a while ago. After some queries from self-published authors that start with fantastic lines like “h r u” (instead of “how are you?”) or “Hello Melissa” (uh… my name is SARAH, thank you very much), I’m sure you can understand why that is. Then, Helen Hollick, a self-published author wrote me and we had a discussion about publishing and books in general. I was feeling adventurous, and after talking to her I realized that she might be the perfect self-published author for me to get my feet wet with self-publishing.

Sea Witch isn’t the type of book I’d normally read. It involves boats (which is something that generally turns me off, as discussed here) and romance, which almost always turns me off. Furthermore, there aren’t many books featuring pirates I’ve read that haven’t been cookie-cutter and rather stereotypical for that sort of thing. With all the things this book had stacked against it, it’s rather surprising that I actually did enjoy it.

Hollick obviously did her research when writing this book. Hollick’s writing makes Cape Town really come alive and imbues it with a sense of the time. Furthermore, and I should personally thank her for this, she includes a well labeled graphic of a ship at the front of the book for readers (like myself) who know absolutely nothing about any sort of craft that floats on the water. She also peppers her book with plenty of pirate culture. These factors all combined really make Sea Witch shine.

Sea Witch is a cross-genre book. It’s a historical fiction and romance having a small tryst with fantasy. There is a white witch, some subtle magic and a sea spirit which, while it doesn’t take center stage in the book, plays a very important role in what happens. Due to the fact that this book seems to flirt with several different genres, it could easily appeal to a wider audience. Fans of historical fiction won’t necessarily be turned off by the fantasy aspects of Sea Witch, as they are subtle enough to not hit most readers in the face, but they are also featured just enough to also please fantasy fans and the romance isn’t the steamy ripping-of-the-bodice stuff that one might expect. The line between genres is something Hollick straddles well in Sea Witch.

Romance tends to be something that can make or break a book for me. The romance in Sea Witch was touching, if absolutely predictable. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, and it wasn’t in this book. However, the way the two lovers came together did seem rather unbelievable. While it is obvious who will end up together, there was no real long, drawn out flirty courtship that a reader would expect. Instead it seemed that a switch was flipped between these two characters which brought things from “off” to “seriously on” in about a page, flat. I found this to be very unbelievable, as romance doesn’t generally happen this way. However, Hollick does have an explanation for why these two characters became so serious, so suddenly so the issue I have with this romance might not be an issue for everyone who reads Sea Witch.

Hollick has been published before, and it’s obvious with her practiced and lyrical writing style. She is descriptive and her characters are well fleshed out. Her world is vibrantly realized and the plot never ceases its unrelenting pace. Sea Witch is a book that many readers will easily become absorbed in. However, it does have some minor editing problems. There are a (very) few awkwardly placed, or missing words. Some commas could be added, or subtracted, from certain sentences, and there is one sentence in particular that made no sense to me no matter how much I tried to figure it out. While I do mention those issues, it should be noted that Hollick’s writing and the book itself is tightly wound enough that most readers will be able to overlook these flaws. There aren’t enough of them to alter the flow of the book or ruin anyone’s understanding of the overall plot or what’s being said.

Jesamiah Acorne and Tiola are fun characters. Both are scarred from events in their pasts and struggling to move forward in life. Because of that, both characters are surprisingly human and relatable. They are colorful, and three-dimensional. If I couldn’t fully believe all of their actions, their likeability helped me easily overlook this. On the flip side, the two main “bad” guys in the book were almost stereotypical with their roles. The parts they played in the plot were predictable and, in comparison to Jesamiah and Tiola, they were very two-dimensional. While this didn’t absolutely hinder my enjoyment of Sea Witch, it did occasionally make me roll my eyes.  

In the end, Sea Witch wasn’t a book I expected to enjoy at all, but I did. While it did have its problems, Hollick’s blend of historical details, polished writing and an emotionally compelling plot, coupled with likeable characters made this book a fun, easily enjoyable escape from reality. The fact that Sea Witch seems to play with several different genres will make it incredibly accessible to a broad spectrum of potential readers. This is a self-published book that gives self-publishing a good name.

3.5/5 stars

1 comment:

  1. thank you Sarah - I'm honoured that you read Sea Witch in the first place, and to get such a nice review is definitely icing on the cake!
    Commas *laugh* - take them out and readers say put them in. Put them in - readers say take them out. I can't remember who it was (someone like Oscar Wilde (though I don't think it was him)The quote sort of went: "I am fed up with punctuation. For my next novel I am going to leave it all out and let the reader put various dots, dashes and squiggles in where they personally want them." :-)

    Can I add (without giving any spoilers away for the rest of the series) One reason why the "romance" was "instant" is that Tiola and Jesamiah have known each other a long time. A very long time. Several thousand years in fact, but it isn't until the 18th century that they actually come together. Ssh enough said, I'll be giving plots away!

    Again, thank you Sarah