Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

From a larger world comes E. Catherine Tobler's story about Jackson, a mysterious orphan who harbors a dark and slithery secret. Jackson never knew his parents but is excited to find a new life taking a train across the country after spending much of his childhood in an orphanage under nuns. In a brief stop in Chicago, he visits a fair and sees strange sights that cause the tentacles writhing beneath his skin to come out. He has to be calmed by Sister Jerome Grace, the only motherly figure he knows. She is able to get him back on the train and they continue the journey to San Francisco. The other children are adopted by families but Jackson is taking by a woman named Cressida who runs an establishment called MacQuarie's. 

Cressida's assistant, Foster, watches over Jackson as he takes them to the city. Jackson sees the circus and feels welcome in this place, a place where freaks are not unusual at all. Jackson also becomes intrigued by a girl named Mae who dances at a competing show. Witnessing this spectacle enchants Jackson and he risks crossing Cressida to go back again. Jackson uses his ability to survive the mean streets as he works with Foster to carry out the strange orders from Cressida. He also meets the baker girl Gussie and charms her for his purposes, though his affection always remains for Mae.

The novel goes in an interesting direction as the rivalry between Mae and Cressida puts Jackson in the middle. Cressida has some strange dark objects that she keeps locked away in a chest and she battles to keep her territory from rival gangs. It helps that she has a squad of superhumans to fight off aggressors. Mae knows that Cressida is up to no good but Jackson feels he owes this woman because she has given him a home, even if it also feels like a prison. Cressida feels her grip on Jackson slipping and leverages her power by threatening Sister Jerome Grace. Jackson does not take kindly to threats.

I was a little confused by the finale but realized that it was something extraordinary as I read it. The titular kraken rests below Macquarie's and Jackson has to use Gussie to access it with Mae. The final fight pits Jackson versus the Kraken and his certain kind of tentacles win out. Cressida is defeated and killed in the process and there is a passage to the underworld that is sealed off. Jackson inherits the circus with no one else to own it and this leads to the series that E. Catherine Tobler writes in a series of short stories. 

I am looking forward to reading some of these and think I've encountered one before without actually realizing it. I'm not sure if The Kraken Sea is the best starting point but it certainly stands on its own as a clever novella that brings a strange new world to life. Apex Book Company has some great work and I'm almost always impressed when I pick up one of their books. 

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