“It’s not that bad,” Chaqal said.
“I don’t know.” Kodin flattened his lips. “Last time the Windspeakers shut down that much water, it started all kinds of trouble—fighting, riots, all the shit bored people do when they run out of money.”
“But they can’t just—just shut down all the wind,” Chaqal asked. “Can they?”
It is a time of strife and danger for those who make their living on the seas. All along the Jihiri Islands, sailors like the crew of the Giggling Goat feel the pressing threat of the Dragon Ships—fearsome raiders who pillage towns up and down the coast for their own gain. In order to give themselves an advantage, the Dragon Ships have focused their attack on storm temples, killing Windspeakers—that is, stone-eyed magic-workers who devour storms and make wind with their breath—at Vura and Tash. Worse, the Dragon Ships have stolen the icon—a religious artifact through which Windspeakers focus and share their power—and with this theft, they have effectively shut down trade routes and any magical means of halting their advance.
Tazir, the weather-worn captain of the Giggling Goat, is eager to get out of harbor before the raiders come back, but desperately needs more money to keep herself and her crew going. Enter Shina, a gangly young woman possessing an inordinately grotesque amount of money who’s just as desperate to leave and make her way north. Spinning a story about running away from a bad betrothal and playing the stupid rich girl chit with all her might, Shina buys a spot on the Goat—but her real mission is far more dangerous than her cover story. You see, Shina is the last surviving Windspeaker—and an untrained one still possessing her dangerous human-eyes, at that—of the massacre at Tash, and she is desperate to recover the icon that the Dragon Ships have stolen. The future of the Windspeakers and the fate of the Jihiri islands rest on this young girl’s shoulders, as well as the shoulders of Tazir and her intrepid crew.
There is something immediately arresting about Emily Foster’s debut novella even before you open its pages—oh, that gorgeous cover art! That glorious title! Not to mention the novella’s killer premise. I mean, a tale of a matriarchal-style world, pirates on the high seas, storm-spitting magicians, and queer women sailors—um, yes, please.
I’m happy to say that, on the whole, The Drowning Eyes lives up to its beautiful package with the beauty of its descriptive writing. The Jihiri Islands and the warm waters surrounding them are real places brought to life with Foster’s descriptions. I actually felt like I was aboard the Gigging Goat’s narrow deck, with the steady wind at my back and rolling waves underfoot. Even better than the descriptions of the sea, however, are the depictions of magic and even battles at sea in The Drowning Eyes. The powerful storms stirring in Shina’s belly before she spits them out, the looming weight of a wall of water poised to take out all of the Dragon Ships in a squall of unrestrained magical ferocity—these sensory depictions, among others, are powerful and among my favorite moments in this novella.
The magical premise and worldbuilding in The Drowning Eyes are similarly impressive, if slightly less well-executed in comparison to Foster’s evocative descriptions. I love the idea of magic in this world as well as the religious sect of Windspeakers, who are taken from their homes at a young age once their powers are detected, trained at temples on the various islands…and then have their eyes cut out (willingly) and replaced with stone (so as not to accidentally start crying and wipe out whole populations in an accidental typhoon).
And then there are the characters and the actual narrative of The Drowning Eyes, where things start to feel a little shakier. The novella features two main characters: Tazir, the captain of the ship, and Shina, the young, masquerading Windspeaker. Shina is the focal heart of the story, with her desperate mission to recover the icon so that her people can access their storm-powers once more. Untried, untrained, and not yet connected to the icon (she still has her human-eyes, after all), Shina’s mission is daunting and incredibly taxing—she struggles with her abilities and the storms she must unleash, as well as the fallout from her efforts. In contrast, Tazir is the questioning/skeptical heart of the story—she doesn’t just accept things the way that they are, and she doesn’t understand why anyone would want their eyes gouged out when it seems like Shina is perfectly capable of generating and controlling magic on her own. Tough, grizzled, and tested, Tazir is Shina’s foil, even though she feels somewhat less developed than her younger counterpart. That said, I do love the irony of a salt-weathered captain who is as tough as they come captaining a ship called the Giggling Goat.
There’s a lot to like about this book, but there are also some clear shortcomings, mostly that The Drowning Eyes felt very much like a victim of its novella format. The dual narrators don’t quite work and felt jarring in a story of this length (though, had this been a longer book, it could have been more balanced). More importantly, the elements of magic and plot could have been far more impactful in a longer story. I wish we got to understand more of the magic of the Islands and the Windspeakers, more of Shina’s story, and more adventures aboard the Giggling Goat before the Dragon Ships are so handily and neatly dealt with. The ending in particular was rushed and strange, and there’s an overall unevenness to the pacing of the story—too much needs to happen in too short a time, which has the unfortunate effect of making The Drowning Eyes conclusion feel just a bit too pat.
Those criticisms aside, this is still a fantastic novella and one I wholeheartedly recommend.
Plus, a girl can dream for more stories set in this same world…right?
In Book Smugglerish: 6 and a half storms out of 10.