Title: These Rebel Waves (2018)
Author: Sara Raasch
Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
Read: 7th – 14th April 2019
Genre: YA fantasy; historical; LGBTQ
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Adeluna is a soldier. Five years ago, she helped the magic-rich island of Grace Loray overthrow its oppressor, Argrid, a country ruled by religion. But adjusting to postwar life has not been easy. When an Argridian delegate vanishes during peace talks with Grace Loray’s new Council, Argrid demands brutal justice—but Lu suspects something dangerous is at work. Devereux is a pirate. As one of the stream raiders who run rampant on Grace Loray, he scavenges the island’s magic plants and sells them on the black market. But after Argrid accuses raiders of the diplomat’s abduction, Vex becomes a target. An expert navigator, he agrees to help Lu find the Argridian—but the truth they uncover could be deadlier than any war. Benat is a heretic. The crown prince of Argrid, he harbors a secret obsession with Grace Loray’s forbidden magic. When Ben’s father, the king, gives him the shocking task of reversing Argrid’s fear of magic, Ben has to decide if one prince can change a devout country—or if he’s building his own pyre. As conspiracies arise, Lu, Vex, and Ben will have to decide who they really are… and what they are willing to become for peace.” (Synopsis from publisher)
These Rebel Waves is less a pirate story and more about geopolitical politics and religious persecution. Grace Loray’s status as an island state of Argrid is under question and its fight to get to that point has been bloody and complicated, something the story doesn’t shy away from showing. The book begins by giving you a glimpse of during that bloody fight, when rebels fought against the Argridian rulers, and gained control of the island and then the action then flits to the “present” of the book when representatives from the mainland are on the island to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. It’s a book which is focused on the complex politics of a nation, especially when it was previously beholden to a colonial force. The second thread of the story relates to the conflict between the deeply pious and restrictive religion of Argrid and magic, which it considers unforgivably heretical – and puts its proverbial money where its mouth is when it comes to persecuting those who use it. The magic system present in the book is based on the ingesting of botanics, and the aforementioned “pirates” teased in much of the book’s marketing are actually “stream raiders”, crews who find and sell the different plants required for this forbidden magic. This is something I hadn’t seen before, so I was intrigued to see this built and played out in the course of the story.
“Had Lu any other choice, she would not have been so eager to buy botanical magic from someone who had stolen it out of the island’s riverbeds. Riverbeds that belonged, now, to the Grace Lorayan Council.”
The characters are perfectly fine and I certainly found myself rooting for them. Adeluna aka Lu, our main character, is easy to like as far as YA heroines go – she’s strong and feisty but she also clearly has a troubled past, having had to grow up very quickly despite her young age due to her involvement with her parents’ rebellious faction on the island of Grace Loray. She is well and truly a child of the war she found herself growing up in, and she is one of the few who seems to constantly have the very delicate political situation in the back of her mind when making her decisions of how to act. Given her position amongst the rebels, this is unsurprising, but a pleasantly surprising element of her character.
“The barest plan sprouted in her mind. If Lu could call it a plan – her idea was one part logic, five parts madness.”
Meanwhile, another main character we have is Benat, he is son of the ruler of Argrid and very much constrained by this social position. He is a child of the conflict in a different way: he saw his uncle and cousin burned for witchcraft by his father, and that carries its own traumatic memories. Because of this, he is so worried any time he does anything that seems to be using magic, or even just siding with those who do. When his father gives him a job which involves dabbling in this forbidden art, he is constantly concerned about the line he’s toeing. I found Benat’s internal conflict particularly interesting to the story, but it also kept Benat at somewhat arm’s length because of it, in my opinion. I never felt like he had chance to properly develop to his full potential, but I’m hoping this will be rectified by the sequel in due course.
“Benat Gallego was thirteen when he watched his uncle and cousin burn to death.”
Elsewhere we have the final main character in the form of Devereux Bell aka Vex, an infamous young pirate who has already developed a fearsome reputation for not aligning himself to any of the syndicated ‘stream raider’ clans but instead working on his own. Of course, the (young) man behind the myth has more to him than that but he also provides the requisite levels of banter and flirting with Lu when she calls upon him to help track down a missing Argridian ambassador who may have been kidnapped by the pirate syndicate. However, it was in Vex’s interactions with the likes of young boy Teo (who venerates the legend of Devereux Bell, as any young scamp might) that I began to really enjoy his character. In fact, I have to say that the side/minor characters were actually often the ones I was most interested to see – Teo and Nayeli in particular – which probably says something about just how unique and enduring the main characters actually were when all is said and done.
“Vex had never cared much about politics. As an orphan during the war, he’d only cared what reactions he could get from people and how he could use those reactions in his favor. Which, someone told him once, was how the governments of the world operated – through manipulation.”
Conceptually, These Rebel Waves was exactly my jam: it was chock-full of piracy, politics, and persecution (who would’ve thought that was my thing?). The setting struck me as particularly Spanish, and I wonder how much of this is because Benat, his father, and the entire Church struck me as inquisitorial – there was even talk of sending an Armada against the island colony of Grace Loray at one point. As someone who personally finds that period of history and that geographical influence particularly interesting, it was a joy to see a fantasy story inspired by a more Hispanic tone. However, I think there was something lost in the execution of the book’s concept as the writing style and level of characterisation felt slightly too pitched on the younger side of YA. Even the twists and turns of the story felt somewhat obvious to me – again, could this be because I’ve read one too many YA novels and know when to expect the ‘twists’, or is it because it was aimed at a younger comprehension level?
“He beamed at her. ‘Wicked princesa.’
‘I don’t know why you keep bragging about that.’ “
Whatever the reason, for a narrative which involves such serious, complex, and dark themes (including torture, colonialism, immigration, religious persecution, and, essentially, child soldiers), I would have expected it to be aimed at a slightly older audience and I think it would have flourished there too. I found something lacking in the way the book kept trying to make sure it hit certain ‘beats’ typical of a YA fantasy story, including the near-requisite banter of the main hero and heroine characters and the inevitable romance lurking somewhere along the way. Although that’s not rightfully the book’s fault (it lies with the reader here), it did hamper my enjoyment and, ultimately, my rating. Having said all that, These Rebel Waves is an enjoyable example of a YA fantasy which deals with some heavier topics that elevate it beyond your typical adventure story, just don’t expect ‘yo ho ho’ swashbuckling action or you will likely be disappointed.
“One of the tricks she’d learned during the revolution – if she acted as though she belonged, people overlooked her. At least a half dozen times, she had strolled out of fortified places she’d had no business escaping from.”