Ms. Armstrong does not spend a lot of time creating Moria and Ashyn’s world. Readers have no idea whether the story takes place in the past or in a post-apocalyptic future, on Earth or another planet, or where on Earth if that is the location. The daily lives of the empire remain unknown, as do any questions regarding the origins of the Keeper and the Seeker. Yet, for all the ambiguity and lack of clear world-building, readers will rapaciously devour the story, for none of the backstory really matters. Their mission is to find their way back to each other, survive the legendary creatures they encounter, and try to save their village members. The true location is insignificant, as is the era of the novel. As for the little rituals and daily chores that make up life in the empire, Ms. Armstrong provides those clues through the narrative. It is a foreign world without it being necessary to explain or define every nuance.
Yet, Ms. Armstrong brilliantly manipulates the familiar to create her world. The strong warrior tradition of the entire society is reminiscent of the Samurai of Japan. The idealized features of the empire-born have Asian features, as do the names. Everything from the weapons they use, their customs, their physical appearances, and their food to their societal structure has origins in the great ancient civilizations. The roles of the Seeker and the Keeper may be as alien as the Wastes, the Dead Forest, and other areas across which the girls travel, but the actual world in which they live is really not quite as unknown as it initially appears to be. Therein lies Ms. Armstrong’s penchant for focusing on the story rather than spending time setting the stage for said story.
All of the characters are quirky and endearing in their own right, but it is Moria’s outspokenness and boldness that will capture a reader’s heart. She has no filter, and what she says is simultaneously shocking and also humorous. Her role as protector servers her well, as she is most definitely a woman of action. She’s brusque and brash, but her heart is always in the right place, whether it be surviving a battle, foliaging for food, or watching over her sister. Ashyn is quiet and gentle. However, while she too has a backbone and knows when to use it, there is something about Moria’s spunkiness that delights and entertains more than the others’ broodiness or feelings of insignificance.
The writing within Sea of Shadows is very good. It is the type of novel where readers will keep turning the page until they simply run out of pages. The pacing is methodical, smooth, and very quick. A lot happens in a short period of time. There is nothing forced though; the action occurs naturally. More importantly, Ms. Armstrong does not devote a lot of time to setting up the series. This first novel has a specific beginning and ending that will connect to the next story without the need of a shocking cliffhanger, strange diversions to be explained in the next novel, or anything else that detracts from Moria’s and Ashlyn’s journey. One knows instinctively that there is a purpose to every word in the novel and has no doubts that Ms. Armstrong will explain all when the timing is right for the story and not for the audience. It is an important and deliberate choice that many series writers fail to select.
Sea of Shadows crosses the boundary into fantasy by the appearance of various legendary creatures. However, one could easily consider the story a piece of historical fiction given its obvious ties to the ancient warrior traditions and societies of Asia. The fact that there is no definite time or location stamp intrigues because of the possibilities without detracting from one’s overall enjoyment of the story. The characters, and especially Moria, make that impossible anyway. A ragtag bunch of misfits that blend well together is always an enjoyable experience, and Moria and Ashlyn’s little group is particularly fun to watch interact and work through their differences. However, the highlight remains the fact that Sea of Shadows is an action-adventure novel in which the heroes are two kick-ass heroines with snappy dialogue, strong loyalty bonds, and even greater senses of duty. It is going to be fun to watch these two sisters work together and grow into their powers.