The Sand Sea was a bit of an anti-climax for me. It was called an epic fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien proportions, so I was ready to have this be my next favorite book. So, were my expectations too high? Perhaps. Don’t get me wrong; there were still plenty of great things in the Sand Sea, most notably the detailed world-building and imaginative story. It was with the characters and style of writing that I had issues. I got an ARC of the Sand Sea in exchange for my honest review.
Anyway, the Sand Sea is a historical fantasy/alternative history novel (or should I say tome? It’s HUGE), written by Michael McClellan. It’s not surprising that the Sand Sea is an alternate history: McClellan has a history degree. And who wouldn’t want to rewrite history?
So, what’s the Sand Sea about? Well, it kind off weaves together two separate storylines. On the one hand, there are the Anglians and New-Anglians, who are set to go on an expedition to the Sand Sea. But the Sand Sea is a dangerous place for all who don’t know it, and they soon find their quest not to be so easy as they thought. On the other hand, we have Selena, an innocent young woman who seems to be the rightful heir to the Sand Sea realm. But, if it’s up to Grand Vizer Jemojeen, that never happens. He’s the tyrant ruling the cities in the Sand Sea, wanting to gather the magical Staff of the Ram, the Lion, and the Serpent. He knows that one who controls the staff will have the power to rule the world.
“Your fear can stop you,” said Sam Huntington. “Or it can set you free. You are right to fear the Sand Sea, and you are right to fear a wasted life. You must decide which of the two you fear more.”
So, as I said, it was a very imaginative story, with a unique storyline. It does have the classic theme of ‘evil can be overcome if people have faith and the willingness to fight.’ It also had some twists in there, and a good one at the end, though it wasn’t totally unexpected.
I did have an issue with the pacing, though. While I don’t mind a slow-paced book (I mean, I love Robin Hobb’s books, and no one can say they are fast-paced), it depends on how this slow pace is achieved. In the Sand Sea, the action was too often undercut by descriptions, and scenes that I felt were not necessary. For instance, one of the action scenes was slowed by adding unnecessary details about what different types of rifles they used and how they worked.
I had the most issues with the characters. So, there were a couple of main characters (or at least the ones I considered to be the main characters; it’s not totally clear): Selena, Hannah, Jack, and Peter. Both Selena and Hannah I loved from the start: they were interesting and not too stereotypical. But, as the story progresses, they fall flat, and the only noteworthy thing seems to be how beautiful they are. Especially Selena becomes this almost mythical creature, out of nowhere, somehow knowing everything. All the characters do change, but the change is sudden and is not properly build up. I’ve thought about why this is, and I think it has to do with a lack of focus. There’s a lot of different POV characters, and even within chapters, we have that God-like viewpoint where we know thoughts and feelings of more than one character.
I think McClellan tried too much to be everywhere, and note down everything happening in the story, and with that, we lost the focus on the more important characters. Hannah especially does not seem that significant anymore in the end, even though there was quite some time spent on her in the beginning. Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t care much about any of the characters, and that is important to me when I read a book.
I will say that Jemojeen was a great villain. He had everything, and his chapters were interesting as I saw him becoming more and more ruthless.
“Fear of losing what one has makes cowards of men.”
I can’t say anything other than that the world-building was fantastic. There were a lot of details, both on political systems in different countries, to what the environment looked like, to what people looked like and wore. I can only commend McClellan for all the effort he put into that. Everything felt very real and realistic, from the Sand Sea, the different religions, the story of the Staff and the order of the Ram, Lion, and Serpent, to the more Western-like industrialized countries with there new inventions. Really amazing stuff.
It also has map illustrations at the beginning that look absolutely amazing! I just love maps in books. You can check them out on McClellan’s website here. Pretty cool right?
On the other hand, I was not a big fan of the writing. It seemed to me there was a lot of telling, with many passages feeling boring because of it. And there were just so many descriptions of what people’s appearances. Even the most insignificant characters got a full description down on their height, hair color, and clothing. These descriptions also undercut the action often. I skipped over these passages, or I wouldn’t have been able to continue reading. It just happened too often, and it annoyed me. It seemed to me that some things were only explained and there to show that McClellan had thought about these things. But, as in all fantasy, just because you thought about it, just because it’s part of the world you created, doesn’t mean it has to be in the story.
There also seemed to be quite some repetitiveness of information. I can understand that it’s challenging to track all the information given when it’s such a long story, but a bit more effort on that part would’ve helped. Overall, I think the book could’ve probably been 10-20% shorter, and would still work (perhaps even better).
The Sand Sea did have a clear and interesting narrative device: the story is more of a history collection written by one of the characters. While it does make sense to have more details when you choose such a device, I think one account of what a Gressian or Errassian looks like is enough.
“But if you fall? If you fall, others will proclaim your deeds. They will shout your name from the backs of their camels, and they will speak of you around their fires at night. They will tell of you to their children and their children’s children, and you will live on. For no man who falls today shall truly die.”
Alright, let’s sum up this review! All in all, the Sand Sea has some good scenes, especially in the beginning, with good action, but as the story progresses, the pace slows, and many chapters feel more or less redundant. Besides, the writing felt often repetitive, and there were too many character descriptions when this wasn’t necessary at all. However, the world-building in the book is excellent, with many rich details that make it very real for the reader, and the story itself is exciting and imaginative. Unfortunately, for me, the biggest down-side is that I didn’t feel connected to the characters. It’s for that reason that I probably won’t read the sequel when that comes out.
But, if you do love historical fantasy, with great world-building and an awesome story, this could be the book for you. I’ve also seen many reviews raving about this book: it all depends on your personal taste.
So, if you have read this book, I would love to know what your thoughts about it were! What did you think of the world McClellan created? Did you feel connected to the characters? Which did you like best, or didn’t like? What about the story itself: did you see the twists coming? Especially the one in the end?