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Review of Be the Sea by

Be the Sea

by Clara Ward

I touched the ocean only once. In 2014, flying back home from England for the first time, I stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to attend the wedding of two Canadian teachers who had been colleagues in England. The timing was perfect, and it also allowed me to visit an old friend who lived there. The two of us took a trip out to Peggy’s Cove, and I touched the Atlantic. Beyond that, I have barely ever been on boats. Water is not for me! So when I received a request to review Be the Sea, I was intrigued. So much of science fiction focuses on space, yet we know more about deep space than we do our deepest oceans. While this book is not a deep dive into our oceans, Clara Ward nevertheless gets you thinking about how ocean life is connected to life on the rest of this planet, including humanity. While there were parts of this book that didn’t work for me, I overall appreciate a lot of the ideas shared here.

Marine biologist Wend Taylor invites themself aboard photographer Viola Yang’s zero-emissions sailboat as she crosses the Pacific, bound for Hawai‘i. Viola’s family member and self-appointed cook, Aljon, rounds out the crew. After talking their way aboard, Wend settles in and shares stories with Viola and Aljon as the three slowly bond. When the boat arrives in Hawai‘i, rather than going their separate ways, the three of them remain connected by business and by a mystery that has something to do with their birthdays. As Wend and the others dream of flying, of being attuned to the sea life around them, Wend also reconnects with people from their past—some friendly, some not so much.

Be the Sea is set in 2039, which is scary to say only fifteen years into the future. Ward envisions a world that has taken dramatic steps towards mitigating climate change—or at least, islands like Hawai‘i has; we don’t see much of the rest of the world, which is fine. Most of the characters in this story are eco-conscious and very concerned with reducing emissions, and many of their conversations and actions revolve around how to be more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, etc. Ward mixes contemporary technology and best practices (such as reducing meat consumption in favour of plant-based proteins) with logical, near-term extrapolations of technology and ideas (such as the Seward generators that make up one of the subplots). Wend and their cohort are presented as being on the cutting edge, yet at the same time, they clearly live in a world where addressing climate change has acquired a more tragic urgency than we seem to feel here in 2024.

If you are into marine biology, then this is a book for you. Told from a limited third-person perspective following Wend, Be the Sea has plenty of discussions of marine ecosystems, from the effect of warming oceans on coral reefs to the way that ocean currents distribute bacteria widely around the world. It’s fascinating, and I appreciate a good dose of science in my science fiction.

Without going into spoilers, the science-fictional aspect of the plot comes into play late in the book (though Ward lays the groundwork early on, in the form of people’s flying dreams). Suffice it to say, it’s of the Gaia-hypothesis-we-are-all-connected flavour. Ward’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for this experience is enchanting. I like how several characters raise different philosophical questions that logically follow from what happens, demonstrating how easily scientific discoveries provoke new lines of thinking about not only what we believe but what we are capable of believing.

I found myself, as I was reaching the end of the book, wishing that all of this had been more prominent up front. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Be the Sea is slow and feels, at times, interminable. I almost set it aside while Wend, Viola, and Aljon were still at sea; their arrival at Hawai‘i came just in time to prevent this. Once they get there, the plot does pick up—but it also turns into a peculiar genre mash-up. At various points the book is intimate and cozy before quickly turning into a thriller, and there’s a fair amount of tonal whiplash as a result.

Wend is a neat main character. They’re seventeen years older than me, yet I could still relate to and appreciate the portrayal of a progressive person in their sixties, grappling with how much the world has changed while still trying to hold on to ideals that have been bent and stretched by the passage of the decades. It made me think a lot about who I will be in 2039. I also enjoyed, to various degrees, Viola and Aljon. However, as the cast of characters expands, some of the interpersonal conflict feels very contrived, and the book fails to establish a clear and convincing antagonist. Shelley is somewhat one-dimensional in her extreme, hot-tempered perceptions of everything Wend does as a misstep. Mira, similarly a tempest-in-a-teapot, comes in out of nowhere in this brief vignette of indignation before being defused and set to one side. The two characters who seem like they are the primary antagonists have fuzzy motivations, and likewise their actions feel over the top. After spending a third of its length doing almost nothing but character-building among its core trio, the book suddenly springs into action yet cannot seem to decide what kind of story it wants to be. The result is very muddled.

I have similar, albeit more mixed, comments on the characterization and dialogue. There’s a lot to like but also a lot that didn’t work for me. First, I really appreciate how hard Ward works to build an inclusive, respectful, and open environment among this cast. There’s a lot of explicit discussion of labels, of boundaries, of the distinctions between kink and sex and the fluidity of gender and attraction. As a trans and aroace woman, all of that is as energizing to me as the pacing of this book was enervating. Not only is Wend a great nonbinary, autistic, demisexual protagonist (whose pronouns everyone respects!), but they are surrounded by a diverse group of people of various ages, shapes, abilities, races, and genders, all of whose needs are discussed, accommodated, and respected. There is often a complaint (sometimes even justified) that, in our effort to improve representation in fiction, sometimes diversity becomes tokenistic, or conversations about a character’s identity become soapboxes that detract from the plot. That never happens in Be the Sea, and this is one of its strongest and most endearing qualities.

On the other hand, some of the mechanisms of how we get to know all these wonderful people feel clunky. There’s a distinct dearth of guile among most of these characters. Everyone very plainly says how they feel, and so the conversations become very overt and lack much in the way of subtlety or messiness. Don’t get me wrong—I think there is a time and a place to model healthier communication, so I don’t want to be too harsh. However, conversations in real life are never as cut-and-dry and clean in their process as the ones depicted here. When every conversation goes smoothly and it feels like every character got a chance to say exactly what they wanted, it shatters the illusion. I want dialogue to feel like the conversation got away from the author because the characters picked it up and took it off in their own direction.

To summarize: Be the Sea is messy in its plot and not messy enough in its dialogue—maybe I am just too picky. There’s a lot to recommend this book in terms of creativity, diversity, and general ideas. The actual style and execution left much to be desired. I’m glad I read it, and I hope it resonates better with others than it did for me.


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