I first heard about Antoine Bandele when his book, The Kishi, started getting some positive reviews among bloggers I follow. I’m always looking for unique and especially non-western settings (either creative secondary worlds or worlds inspired by non-western real world places and peoples), and it seemed like Bandele was an author working to provide those sorts of worlds. I haven’t managed to read The Kishi yet, but I knew I wanted to make sure Bandele was on my reading list for Self-Published Fantasy Month.
When I picked up By Sea & Sky I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew it was going to feature pirates. That was about it. But as the story progressed I was introduced to a wonderful, quirky cast of characters. The world itself was also interesting and engaging. But I also ended up finding interesting characters where I least expected them.
I love strong worldbuilding in my fantasy. I want to feel like the world the characters live in is active and changing. I want to have a sense that what I’m seeing is merely one story among many playing out in this world. The world itself needs to be deep and immersive. By Sea & Sky delivers on all those points. It feels immersive. There is a larger world behind what the characters are experiencing. There are histories to be explored, religions that come into play, and a strong feeling that this is very much a living canvas. I loved this aspect of the book. I also enjoyed not only the characters but how Bandele excels at character perspective. There are two main viewpoint characters, Zala, a somewhat reluctant pirate and Karim, an up-and-coming officer in the Vaaji navy. When we’re in Zala’s viewpoints, her side of the story makes perfect sense and you cheer for her. Yet the exact some thing is true when we’re seeing things from Karim’s perspective. Other authors try to achieve this same thing, but I don’t know that many succeed to the same extent that Bandele does. The best example of this sort of character perspective is probably the Elder Empire series by Will Wight, and he achieves this by writing two separate books. Regardless of who else does it well, if you enjoy books that show you multiple perspectives of a conflict, and it feels like both sides are right, then you’re going to find a lot to like in By Sea & Sky. To round out all of this, Bandele’s writing is often sharp and concise. This is a well written novel and the prose helps to keep the action moving along. The finale of the novel was tense and compelling.
While there was plenty I enjoyed in the novel, a few things took my out of the action from time to time. The first is simply that, while I loved the multiple character perspectives, I tended to find Karim’s story much more interesting than Zala’s. This isn’t a criticism so much as my own preferences. Yet in many ways the book feels like it wants to be Zala’s story, and so I found myself wondering if I was supposed to prefer Karim, or if I was missing something about the novel. Perhaps the most frustrating element of this was that I often found myself putting the novel down when the viewpoint switched from Karim to Zala. This meant that I ended up reading the novel in fits and starts. I’m not prepared to say that Zala as a character didn’t work for me, because I feel like she’s still a very well crafted character. I think it’s more that Karim has a tantalizing backstory that we aren’t given much information on. I feel like he’s in some way supposed to be the antagonist of the novel, but to me his story just feels more mysterious and interesting.
Even though I was much more engaged with one side of the story than the other, By Sea & Sky was an enjoyable read. You may have quite a different experience with the characters than I did, so I’d say this one is worth your time. This is especially true if you enjoy deep worldbuilding and non-western settings.