Ness astounds with his ability to create a gorgeously-realised world, but the accompanying story borders on lacklustre.
Anyone who is even passingly-familiar with nineteenth-century literature has probably heard of Moby Dick, and it’s famous opening line. “Call me Ishmael.” Or, so we thought. Patrick Ness, award-winning author behind the Chaos Walking trilogy (adapted to film by director Doug Liman for release next March), has swum back onto the scene with a brand new novel that turns the well-known story of Man’s obsessive hunt against a whale on its head – quite literally. And The Ocean Was Our Sky posits a tantalising question: what if Moby Dick was told from the perspective of the whales? This question essentially forms the basis of the whole story, as we are introduced to Bathsheba and her pod of hunter-gatherer cetaceans, led by the fearsome captain Alexandra. In this world, Man’s hunt of whale-kind has led to retaliation from the surface world, and a war is brewing. Meanwhile, Bathsheba and her pod are on the hunt for the mysterious and legendary Toby Wick (I see what you did there, Patrick) and his crew, said to roam the seas on a great white ship. The premise is undeniably intriguing, but it is in the execution that And The Ocean Was Our Sky falls down.
The book, which isn’t going cheap at a RRP of £12.99, comes in at only 150 or so pages. Regardless then, of however brilliant the writing may be, I felt completely shortchanged. But perhaps the fleeting length of the novel isn’t such a bad thing, because this is a story that runs aground extremely quickly. The characters, of who there are precious few of note, are generally developed to the point of at least empathising with them, although there are far too many instances of throwaway lines being used to provide backstory – a natural consequence, unfortunately, of a novel that spans so little time or story. The themes dealt with by the author are meaty enough, and he’s proven before with Chaos Walking that he can write compellingly about conflict. However, the overall theme of the story, as bookended by Bathsheba’s narration, appears to be the danger of fable and rumour, which is much less interesting and isn’t fully realised. The final act, if indeed twenty or so pages can be called such, is extremely-disappointing and rushed, and I have to confess I didn’t totally grasp it on first read. Knowing that the protagonist will survive from the very beginning leaves the conflict without a sense of weight, although the character of Alexandra does get her arc tied up in a neat little bow, pleasingly enough.
The strengths of the book definitely lie in Ness’ ability to convincingly write about a world, and the underwater world of Bathsheba is vividly-realised, from intelligent observations about the way humanity interacts with the ocean to curious touches like the intricacies of ‘whale crafting’, and we get a gorgeously-realised view of the world from the other way up through some absolutely-breathtaking illustrations by Rovina Cai, which are threaded throughout the book. The possibilities inherent in the sole human character, POW Demetrius, make it all the more disappointing that we spend so little time in this world, because you get the feeling Ness has it all mapped out in his head, like a great nautical atlas of which we see very little. Again, this is a flaw caused by the brevity of the story rather than the quality of the writing. Honestly, I wish Ness had committed more of his time to making a longer story, but as the author how he tells the story is ultimately up to him.
It just didn’t work for me.
And The Ocean Was Our Sky, by Patrick Ness, is out now, published by Walker Books.