This is a story of sea monsters, of a magical portal between two worlds, of people who can talk to fish and walk beneath the waves.

It is also a story about the horrors of the slave trade, of historical figures that go missing, and refugees making dangerous journeys across a treacherous sea in their search for a better life.

You wouldn’t think that mixing whimsical fantasy elements with sombre historical events would be a good idea. Yet H.N. Bouwman’s young adult novel A Crack In The Sea does this, and what’s more, does it extremely well, creating an immersive and original tale that is epic in every sense of the word.

American author Bouwman, who is an associate professor of English at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, seems to have a fondness for blending real life and fiction. Her first novel, The Remarkable And Very True Story Of Lucy & Snowcap (Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008), also did this, blending a story of imaginary islands with the historical background of America and Australia.

In A Crack In The Sea, Bouwman tells three interconnected stories, each focusing on an unusual brother-and-sister pair.

The first story is of Pip and Kinchen, who reside in “the second world”, a fascinating place much like our own but with a few key differences. For one thing, the two live on Raftworld, a giant mass of connected rafts that sails the seas of the second world.

The Raft King, who rules over Raftworld, is fascinated by Pip, who has the gift of being able to talk to fish. And when Pip is abducted to help the Raft King with his sinister plans, it’s up to Kinchen to get him back to safety.

str2_ttcracksea_terencetoh_3The second story takes place in our world, and tells of Venus and Swimmer, two African siblings who are trapped on board a slave ship bound for Jamaica in 1781.

Knowing they are heading towards certain doom, the two manage to find a way out of their terrible situation – they find themselves entering the second world through a mysterious undersea portal.

The third story takes place in 1978, and tells of Thanh and Sang, two Vietnamese teenagers planning to escape their homeland after it is ravaged by the Vietnam War

Joining a rag-tag bunch of people, they plan to sail across the South China Sea, hoping to reach a refugee camp in Malaysia or Thailand.

Along the way, they encounter ferocious storms, dangerous pirates … and the same mysterious portal to another world.

Bouwman’s writing is strong, and her novel sometimes takes on a mythic quality, giving readers the impression they are reading a folk tale or a mythic legend. The worlds of her story (both historical and fantastical) are well-defined, and her characters are strong and memorable – the fact that they all come from such diverse races and backgrounds is icing on the cake!

As you can tell by now, A Crack In The Sea explores some rather dark parts of history; indeed, the book’s afterword contains information about the real-life story of the Zong, a slaveship involved in a particularly gruesome situation), which partly inspired the novel.

This sort of subject matter, fortunately, is handled deftly and sensitively by Bouwman, who admirably never talks down to her young adult audience.

Violence and cruelty are very real things that could happen to her characters at many stages of their adventure; however, these elements are mostly implied rather than described outright, ensuring the book never feels too dark.

Bouwman’s book also serves as a nice coming-of-age tale, particularly through the characters of Kinchen and Venus, who must overcome some really difficult situations to reach their goals. Also fun to read about are Pip and Thanh, who are both outsiders – reading how they figure out their place in the world is quite a nice experience.

The tale does have some minor issues: it jumps across timelines and worlds a bit, which can be a bit confusing, and a subplot involving a sea creature’s quest feels a little undeveloped.

Some of the characters also seem a little undeveloped: Swimmer, for example, seemed to be there mostly to make up numbers! Certain parts also drag a bit: if you are looking for an action packed high seas adventures, this may not be the book for you.

These aside, A Crack In The Sea is a truly magical tale. While it was written mostly for a young adult audience, it’s safe to say that many adults will succumb to its charms as well. If anything, the book will fill your next trip to the seaside with wonder: who knows, after all, what magical things there could be beneath the waves?

A Crack In The Sea

Author: H.M. Bouwman
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, fantasy