The Perilous Sea is the middle book in Ms Thomas’ Elemental Trilogy, following on from The Burning Sky and leading into The Immortal Heights, which is scheduled for release this Autumn. Because the story is one that runs through all of them, the three books really do need to be listened to in order, although it’s just about possible to listen to The Burning Sky as a standalone. That said, I can’t imagine anyone who enjoyed that not wanting to continue with the series, because it’s just so damn good.
I’m not one who reads or listens to Young Adult fiction as a matter of course. I’ve read Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s superb His Dark Materials trilogy, and that’s about it; but when I learned that one of my favourite historical romance authors was going to be venturing into the YA genre, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist.
It’s difficult to launch straight into a plot summary of The Perilous Sea without giving a bit of the background from the first book, but I’ll try to be brief. (That sound you can hear is my editor snickering at the idea of my attempting brevity! Editor’s note: Big. Sigh.) Our hero is Prince Titus of the House of Elberon, The Master of the Domain, a magical realm which has for years been under the dictatorial rule of the neighbouring kingdom of Atlantis. As Titus is only sixteen, the Domain is ruled by a regent (his uncle), but while he is closely watched and guarded at home, he is afforded a greater degree of freedom at the school he attends – Eton College in Victorian England.
For as long as he can remember, Titus has been aware that it is his destiny to overthrow the rule of Atlantis and destroy the High Commander of Atlantis, otherwise known as the Bane. According to the prophecies made long ago by his mother, a gifted seer, Titus’ task is to protect, at all costs, the great elemental mage who will ultimately cause the Bane to meet his end. The prince has had years to prepare for the coming of the mage – he has spent every second he can on learning spells, learning how to fight, learning… basically everything he can get his hands on, and he has also prepared for the coming of the mage, creating an identity for him and casting spells on his Eton housemates so that they will “remember” him when he finally arrives. In England the mage will live as Archer Fairfax – but when the time comes, Titus hits a snag. He hadn’t expected this great elemental mage to be a girl.
The Burning Sky tells the story of how Titus and Iolanthe Seabourne – who assumes the identity of Fairfax – progress from an initially hostile and difficult alliance to a strong working relationship in which they trust each other implicitly and would do anything to keep the other safe. Woven through all the action and the magic is a tender and well written romance, which is funny, deeply-felt and not without its heated moments.
The Perilous Sea opens on a scene which is completely unrelated to the events of the previous book, with a girl waking up in the middle of a desert, having no idea who she is, where she is or how she got there. All she knows is that she must evade the agents of Atlantis at all costs, and that she appears to have magical powers and a knowledge of potions and cures. While looking about her for clues, she sees a body lying face-down a short distance away and is instantly wary, wondering if this person – whoever he is – could be responsible for her situation and lack of memories.
Of course, the listener is well aware of who these people are, but one of the joys of the story is listening to them find out, rediscover each other and fall in love all over again. Once again, the romance running throughout the book is really well-developed and often very poignant, especially after Titus makes a discovery that turns everything he knows about his destiny upside down. He is faced with a difficult choice – to continue to follow the prophecies of the mother he never knew and risk losing the girl he loves, or to set aside everything he has ever believed to follow a new and unknown path with Iolanthe at his side.
One of the techniques Sherry Thomas frequently employs in her books – and one I really enjoy – is the use of flashbacks, and she uses them here to excellent effect. The story switches between the Sahara Desert, where Titus and Iolanthe are on the run from the Atlantean forces sent to capture them, and Eton College in 1883, seven weeks earlier. The locations alternate with each chapter, so that it’s easy to keep track of what is happening in each timeframe; and the way Ms Thomas brings the two timelines together towards the end of the book really is masterful. The plot is satisfyingly complex without being completely baffling, and I remember that when I read the book last year, I almost howled with annoyance that the story was over, ending as it does on an almighty cliffhanger.
Sherry Thomas’ writing is as vivid and beautiful as it always is, and she has once again created a pair of compelling and engaging protagonists in Titus and Iolanthe (if I were my daughter’s age, Titus would totally be a “book boyfriend”!), both of whom possess maturity beyond their years without being adult characters written into younger bodies. One of the things that makes this such a strong sequel is the way in which the protagonists are continually challenged to evolve into stronger, more confident versions of the characters we got to know in The Burning Sky – and another is the way in which the secondary characters – Titus’ and Fairfax’s friends from Eton -take on lives of their own and gain more prominence in the story.
When I saw that a male narrator had been chosen to narrate this series, I wondered a little at it, because I’d thought a female would have been the likely choice given that a large proportion of the story is told from Iolanthe’s point of view. But I wasn’t far into this audiobook before I realised that the male narrator was the right way to go for various reasons, the most obvious one being that the majority of the supporting characters are male – Eton is a boy’s school, after all. I suspect that choosing a narrator for a YA story can be difficult because of the need to strike the right balance between having a narrator with experience, but one who doesn’t sound too old for the material, and perhaps it’s an easier balance to find in a male voice. Narrator Philip Battley isn’t someone I’ve heard before, and a quick look around at Audible US shows only five titles to his credit (including this and The Burning Sky), but although I took a little while to warm to him, I ended up enjoying his performance more than I had initially expected to. His voice sounds sufficiently youthful as to be convincing when portraying a couple of sixteen-year-old protagonists and their friends, his diction is clear and he utilises a range of expression in both narrative and dialogue. In fact, that is what won me over to him – he really gets into the story and convinced me he was enjoying it as much as I was. He differentiates between characters principally by the use of tone and accent and doesn’t employ many changes of pitch – which means the majority of the characters are performed in the same register, but most of the time that isn’t an issue. There were, however a few times I would have liked there to have been a little more distinction between Titus and Iolanthe, because I occasionally had to rely on the dialogue tags to tell me which of them was speaking. My biggest complaint, however, is that Mr Battley pronounces “Iolanthe” incorrectly throughout (which is also the case in the audio of the previous book) – and given she’s one of the principals, it’s a very commonly recurring error. It should be pronounced “eye-o-LAN-thee” (as in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) and not “EE-olanth” as he says it, which just sounds weird.
Taken as a whole, The Perilous Sea is an entertaining and enjoyable audio experience, although the narration – as is obvious from my grades – isn’t quite in the same league as the actual story. That said, Mr Battley’s narration has much to recommend it, and I’m certainly not averse to listening him to him again. I’ll certainly be checking out the final book in the trilogy in audio.
After all, Fortune favours the brave ;-)
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: You can listen out loud (kisses)
Genre: YA Fantasy/Romance
Publisher: Harper Audio