I usually let others do some vetting before I jump in with a new author, so a self-published debut with only 13 ratings on Goodreads was a bit out of my comfort zone. But an Own Voices fantasy epic in a Caribbean-inspired setting (and with a beautiful cover) was enough to intrigue me, and the promise of the ultra-rare mother/son duo meant I couldn’t resist giving Bernie Anés Paz’ debut a shot.
And there was a lot to like about A Cradle of Sea and Soil. The novel alternates perspective between Colibrí, outcast from her island village due to her membership in a Halfborn race feared for their battle madness, and her son Narune, with the story split between a coming-of-age story and a looming threat to the island society. From the first chapter, the reader is immersed in a fascinating setting, with Colibrí and Narune living between the sea and a wild and dangerous forest of giant tree-lords, whose roots and branches form a lattice of pathways high above the forest floor (and even sometimes between islands) that teem with predatory plants(!) and animals.
But the immersion wasn’t just about the unique and captivating setting—the connection to the characters comes immediately. We meet both protagonists in the heat of emotion, with Naru ready to prove himself as an adult warrior and Colibrí deeply protective as she leads her only child into the danger that gives him that chance. This introduction makes it very easy to slip inside the characters’ heads and immediately invest in their fates, and the connection only strengthens when more facets of the danger threatening their society and the risks Naru must take to even train are revealed.
But after an excellent opening that sets up the world, the characters, and plenty of tension, the book starts to lose a bit of steam. The scenes (mostly action, some interpersonal) that are supposed to capitalize on the built tension have trouble carrying the momentum, and both the action and training scenes feel a bit repetitive. Now this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually love action, and if you’re the sort of person who loves training arcs and magic systems, it may work well for you. But for me, some of the fights felt a bit like video game battles, and increased focus on magical training did less to build story and more to interrupt the character development, which didn’t continue with quite the strength of the open. There was plenty of depth, with the narrative diving into both Colibrí and Naru as they tried to save the world and protect each other. But there was not breadth—both characters had one or two overwhelming goals beside which everything else seemed unimportant. This made it easy to relate to both, but it made it hard to get a full sense of them as people.
But for all that there were some missteps, the story pulled together a lot of disparate threads for a strong and satisfying ending that did justice to both the individual character arcs and the overarching plot. The author promises more stories to tell in this world, but this one tells a complete story by itself. And if we do see another, there are some strong building blocks, especially if the author can take strides from debut to second novel. And let’s be honest, in a genre that has a nasty tendency to kill off its best parents early in books, robust Mom point-of-view is always worth a look.
Recommended if you like: magic training arcs, unique settings, living(!) parent perspective.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.