Sea of Sorrows is the last book in the planned series of three Guild Wars universe novels. I’ve reviewed the first two, Ghosts of Ascalon and Edge of Destiny, already. This book stands apart for two reasons: it is the only novel that has been released since the Guild Wars 2 launch, and it is the only novel wholly written by an ArenaNet employee (Jeff Grubb of ArenaNet co-authored Ghosts of Ascalon with Matt Forbeck). The time it appeared to have to mature made this book the best of the series. Any Guild Wars 2 fan looking for a little bit more out of the Guild Wars universe will enjoy Sea of Sorrows.
There are two ways to look at the story. In one sense Sea of Sorrows is a story of a man, Cobiah Marriner. There are four moments of great importance in his life, which are told in the corresponding Acts of the book. In another sense it is the history of Lion’s Arch. This history is told more from the mythological perspective many Americans give George Washington, where he probably built all of Washington D.C. himself.
Ree Soesbee had an interesting task. Whereas the other Guild Wars 2 authors had a more open course of action, Soesbee was locked in by the well-known history of Lion’s Arch. Lion’s Arch is the capital of the human nation of Kryta. The Elder Dragon Zhaitan awakens and raises a sub-continent, which destroys Lion’s Arch via tidal wave. Lion’s Arch is rebuilt as a free city a first-line Tyrian defense against Orr and a place where all races interact. How does Cobiah fall in with each of these huge events?
The four acts of Sea of Sorrows roughly follow along those historical bulletpoints with the main character towing or in tow. I felt that the book in “historical” acts separates it from the mainstream fantasy fiction. After the first act, which is a great introduction to Cobiah, each of the later acts has its Problem. The Problem gets solved, and the story skips ahead a few years. This gives Sea of Sorrows a pace that never lets up, but at the same time the story felt shallower because of it. Act 4 itself could have easily been its own novel with a couple-hundred more pages of exposition.
Soesbee still manages to give many of the characters depth regardless of the split nature of the novel. I really enjoyed the way she showed the nature of the characters, but then later on she reinforced with some small amount of “telling”. For example, Cobiah is a shoot-first kind-of-guy, and later on his companions shore up that nature by cracking jokes about his “gah get’em!” attitude for planning.
I also liked how Soesbee described the scenes or characters. She incorporated discrete set-the-scene paragraphs instead of forcing it into areas where it was necessary, but also would break up the action. I liked that she made sure to paint a decent picture, but then trusted the reader to really make it their own when action struck. The discrete paragraphs also made it easy to speed through them in the few instances where I already had my own picture in mind. Soesbee also did a fine job incorporating video game mechanics in to the novel. I can imagine the difficulty of transposing an MMO’s battle scene in to something a bit more realistic.
I felt that the main problem with the book was where “weird” things had to be quickly explained. I won’t give away spoilers, but I felt that I just had to swallow the explanation for a few things where I felt more was needed. Act 4 in particular has a few of these things, some of which are kept secret to string the reader along, and when they are finally revealed it barely makes sense. I know I did not want to go back to plug in the missing piece to make sure. The weird thing of Act 1 I could accept as written, although a bit more massaging could have been in order. The weird thing of Act 4 felt wrong once explained.
Small spoiler warning. The other small problem I had was with the magical Capricorn ship. It was used as a plot device, became something greater, and then was sent back to the shipyard where….? Where what? Did it stay in the shipyard for the rest of Act 2? Did it become that obvious thing in the game? I have my theories, but I wish such a neat, seemingly important piece of the book had more exposition time.
Overall, both of my problems seem to be part of the novel’s length. At almost 500 pages, Sea of Sorrows is a pretty decent read in its own right. Soesbee had to consider the attention span of fantasy novel readers and gamers who barely read the quest text. I would imagine that given Soesbee’s imagination, plenty of ideas and scenes had to be cut. In parts, I think Soesbee was masterful with short length. Chapter 1 is one of the best singe-chapter character introductions I’ve ever read. Other times I wish there was more, such as Cobiah’s time aboard the Havoc, where I felt maybe a few more scenes could have helped smooth over the weird thing of Act 1.
Of the three Guild Wars novels, Sea of Sorrows is my favorite. I think that Ghosts of Ascalon reads more like the mainstream fantasy novels, and I think Edge of Destiny has a slight advantage for tie-in to Guild Wars 2. However, I think that the Sea of Sorrows has some of the best writing and characters. I am glad to have finally read one of Soesbee’s books.
p.s. Highly likely there will be significant spoilers in the comments below. Be warned.