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The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster2.5 stars
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The Tor.com novella line has been a wonderful thing in SFF publishing since its debut in late 2015, offering some new writers an opportunity to break into the field with stories that don’t demand the commitment of a full novel, while at the same time providing these stories the considerable publishing and promotional resources of the genre’s leading imprint.

But as an art form, the novella is a tricky beast. Skilled writers can work within the very specific word count the category requires and produce tales that are whole and fulfilling. But if you haven’t quite worked out the chops to split the difference properly between short story and novel, you can end up with something that feels like, well, an unfinished novel. Such is the problem that plagues Emily Foster’s The Drowning Eyes, an ambitious and imaginative high fantasy saga that just misses the mark due to inescapable, nagging feelings of incompleteness.

The story begins with an almost heartbreaking sense of promise. Set among an archipelago called the Jahiri Islands, it introduces us to a matriarchal maritime culture whose peoples’ lives are dependent upon fair winds and full sails. This is such a wondrous and colorful departure from landlubber epic fantasies set in the standard pastiche of medieval Europe that my eyes and ears immediately pricked up in attention. We are introduced to an appropriately diverse cast of salty dogs, in particular the crew of the Giggling Goat — an odd name for a fishing vessel, but one that shows a sense of whimsy on Foster’s part that just imbues her world with that much more character.

The Goat’s captain is the prickly and temperamental Tazir, and she and her small crew are struggling. A fearsome band of pirates known as the Dragon Ships have not only been waylaying Jahiri vessels, but they have launched a full-scale, devastating attack on the storm temples of the Windspeakers, the mages who control the weather, and the religious icon that acts as essentially the Windspeakers’ magical network router has been stolen. Now nothing stands between the pirates and the vulnerable islanders.

Tazir and Co. are approached by a young girl who seems a little too rich to be believed and who spins an obviously cock and bull story about fleeing an arranged marriage. Turns out, surprise surprise, she is Shina, the last surviving Windspeaker, and a girl who is such a newbie to the use of magic that she has not even completed her training, which involves the replacement of her actual eyes with stone. Shina has been tasked with recovering the stolen icon at all costs, and the story goes on to recount her quest for the item, with Tazir and her crew experiencing a perilous voyage they never bargained for.

So far, so awesome, but alas, it is in the unfolding of this narrative that its shortcomings become inescapable. Foster absolutely wants to pack a novel’s worth of story into all of this, and as a result, important scenes feel rushed, pacing is erratic, backstory and worldbuilding feel inadequate, character relationships go nowhere that isn’t predictable, and it all wraps up in a sketchy denouement that feels pat and unsatisfying in its attempts at resolution and tying loose ends. The Dragon Ships fare the worst. They are forever an abstract threat, an offstage antagonist, only seen in one sequence — which is probably the story’s strongest, in which Shina’s insufficient control over a magically generated hurricane causes quite a bit more collateral damage than expected. But even then, the pirates are just there to be wiped out en masse, like those hordes of tiny digital orcs in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies.

As a gruff and hard-done-by sea captain who is also a queer woman of color, Tazir ought to have qualified as the most badass epic fantasy character of the year. And she’s certainly fantastic up to a point. But Foster does little with her development beyond presenting her world-weary cynicism as a foil to Shina’s youthful sense of duty and determination. An attraction to Shina on Tazir’s part that naturally causes tension between her and Chaqal, her quartermaster and lover, comes off as a bit of perfunctory drama.

What would have solved nearly all of this story’s problems? Simple: 200 more pages. Because this is how you feel upon finishing reading The Drowning Eyes, that you’ve just read a 300 page novel that’s somehow had two-thirds of its content go missing. Oh, for the opportunity to have had more early scenes depicting life aboard Tazir’s ship, Shina’s initiation into the Windspeakers, greater immersion in the Jahiri Islands’ culture. It’s all there, but it also… isn’t. I will not, at the end of the day, say that you shouldn’t read The Drowning Eyes if it’s a story that has already piqued your curiosity. You will most likely find many things in it to admire, even knowing that it’s got its share of issues. I can only hope that once we get Emily Foster’s first full novel in our hands, it provides the satisfying, complete experience promised here. I know Foster can create worlds and put people in them I will like getting to know. Now just let me sail into some, wind at my back.