Written by Joe the Revelator
I've reviewed novels by Alan Campbell in the past, and my feelings about his work are usually mixed. It's stimulating, imaginative, deeply emotional, and borderline insane. Paradise lost meets the industrial age. The flaws displayed by his characters strike personal nerves, and the violence is visceral and bloody.
On the same token I've said a few disparaging things about his sequels. The Deepgate saga seems to follow a crooked, meandering path that often breaks from the main characters to follow other, stranger viewpoints. That said, and having had more time to reflect on his later work, there's nothing in Campbell's collected material that I regret reading. His strange visions of hell on earth, and of noxious forests and glass trains still pop into my head from time to time.
Sea of Ghosts is a beast of a slightly different stripe. It's closer to a traditional "Fantasy" with magic and treasure, bizarre powers and elves (not called elves, nor do they have pointy ears. But they are a mystical, tall, waspish race with light hair) Dragons play a part in the story too, as do ghost-ships and mermen, which are more like oceanic zombies.
The Sea is a Harsh Mistress, with an STI
The story starts out with promises of trove. And let me be clear that although the word trove (as in treasure-trove) is thrown about, Sea of Ghosts is NOT a pirate-themed book. Trove is a term used for magical items imbued with powers drawn from the cosmos, or from a yawning void in the cosmos, as one of the characters tried to explain late in the book. Trove is money and power, and it is found at the bottom of the poisonous seas.
A dunk in the ocean without washing off the brine will result in a tight, infected patch of gray skin. A full-body dousing will turn you into a gray-scaled monstrosity known as the Drowned; wandering the sea bottom, breathing the brine. Which leaves the dangers of trove-finding and dragon-slaying to men experienced with the sea's fickle nature. Think Dune's deserts, except wet, and slowly rising to consume what remains of the land.
Granger, an ex-military officer turned prison warden, lucks into the best trove finding tool in the empire; his own estranged daughter. With her uncanny ability to see treasure lying on the seabed from the bow of a boat, the two of them are able to haul in more curious brass artifacts and glowing gems than anyone living on the island. Which, of course, begins to attract unwanted attention to the young girl who Granger is just getting to know.
But you don't mess with a Gravedigger. And Granger's past as a naval lieutenant and a hunter of Unmer (magical not-elves) has given him a 'very particular set of skills' as another enraged father once said. The inevitable kidnapping of his daughter sets Granger, aka Unstoppable Force, into action- blowing through virulent waters, haunted ships, fortresses, even cosmic roadblocks. It's hard to make men this driven seem believable, but Campbell does it.
Don't drink the water
I haven't read a novel that so completely captured my attention in a long while. Campbell throws illuminating descriptions and intriguing ideas out like live wires for the reader to grab onto, and doesn't stop to dwell on his own neat notions, like so many other genre writers. A few things are reminiscent of other fantasy works (I swear to god he was playing Skyrim while writing this, or channeling 'Dwemer' ruins) but any similarities are easily forgivable. Most fantasy overlaps itself until it becomes a giant tapestry of the collective human subconscious anyway.