(I got an ARC through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
This book gave me trouble, although I should've liked its setting and themes. When I had to put it down, and then wanted to pick it up again, geting back into the story was a little hard.
I quite liked the world of Stormwrack, which seems fairly rich and complex, full of political intricacies, bureaucracy antics, and red tape tactics. There's a lot of potential in there, a potential that doubles up with the Fleet—a literal fleet of ships representing every nation, basically a federation existing on sea only, and acting as a central government of sorts. I don't doubt readers who like stories with a lot of sea travel and exploration will enjoy this side of the novel. A lof of Stormwrack's system rests on notions such as honour, giving one's word, having one's origin speak for their character; this is partly cliché ("the Sylvanners are thieves", "the Tiladenes are promiscuous"), yet also leaves room for misinterpretation, culture clashes, and having to speak up for oneself, without resorting to family support.
My main problem lay with Sophie. I couldn't warm up to this character, and thought her rather immature for a 24-year-old woman who's had experience in "delicate" situations such as diving, which for me implies knowledge and responsibility. While this was part of her character development, I was constantly reminded of what I'm going to call her "tourist mentality", and in the end, she was still going strong enough about it (obssessed with bringing back samples and pictures, etc.). She first ended up on Stormwrack after saving the life of Gale, a woman who had turned out to be her biological aunt, and that chain of events already hinted at a dangerous world. I could understand Sophie's desire to go back there and learn more; I had less understanding for the way she did it, ignoring everyone's recommendations, and involving her brother Bram in the muddle. It felt as if she just didn't think, only considering the pretty shiny things in the sea, and never the bigger picture and the potential dangers she might put Bram in.
And this very attitude indeed put people in danger, and/or ruined lives. Granted, said people never really explained either how she was such a "threat" to them, not until it was too late, so I don't blame Sophie for not getting it sooner. However, I do blame her for not thinking it through. For instance, when the bad guys threatened her with magic, demanding she retrieved an item for them, not once did she consider that they may get after other people if she didn't move fast enough to their liking. Guess what? Someone got kidnapped, and put in harm's way. The "I have your wife" trope is already tricky enough as it is, since it forces characters to make callous choices (let the loved one die, or let the rest of the world suffer), but when the character herself dive into it head-first, it's even harder.
Moreover, Sophie had a meandering mind, and after a while, it became distracting (perhaps this was part of the reason why I could never get back into the story easily?). She'd be doing something important to free the aforementioned person, but thinking of the flora and fauna right in the middle of the "mission". I don't how it goes for other people; my own mind tend to wander a lot, too; but when something really important pops up, I focus on the task at hand. Maybe I shouldn't expect characters to react like that, but... I can't help it. If Mum gets kidnapped, who would be worrying about hiding wasp samples and whatnot inside their skirts? Not me. Similarly, in the beginning, Sophie goes about voicing out whatever goes through her head, when she's in the middle of an unknown sea, trying not to drown with Gale. Her narrative voice was therefore a little troublesome, although I finally got used to it.
Another problem was how she managed to investigate. As a person thrown in a world whose geopolitical complexities she didn't know, sometimes she did the math too quickly, more quickly than people who were born and raised on that world. This didn't strike me as very logical, and made the other characters seem a little dumb. It felt as if they had been dumbed down for the protagonist to show how clever she was, instead of Sophie just being, well, smart. (The connections she made could've been made by Verena, who knows Earth technology, and would've been just as able, if not more, to connect the dots.)
World-building quibbles of mine:
1) The time travel aspect. It is heavily implied that Stormwrack is future!Earth, but I didn't see the point. The story would've worked just as well if it had been a bona fide other world, and this left me wondering, only to close the book with no more answers about that in the end. Was it really important? Is there going to be a sequel, resting more on this specific matter?
2) The secrecy. Stormwrack people aren't supposed to know about Erstwhile (Earth), but some of them had the portal magic/technology, and seemingly Gale was acting as courier between both worlds, which also implied that other people from Stormwrack lived in Erstwhile. Why? Who were they? If there's a post service, it means there's a need, so how many of them were there? Why the secrecy? As a reader, I don't want to be told "it's hush-hush business": I want to know why it is.
On the other hand, bonus point for deconstructing "the Chosen One/Destroyer of Worlds" trope here.
All in all, an interesting setting, but one I would've liked more answers about, just I would've liked Sophie to be less of a "tourist".
NB: ARC version, with a few errors that may be gone by the time the book hits the shelves. (Verena is called "Thorna" a couple of times: a remnant of a former version, or some subtlety I didn't catch?)