This week I’m recommending `Sea of Ghosts’, a novel by the Scottish writer and photographer, Alan Campbell. This came out in 2011 and is billed as Book One of `The Gravedigger Chronicles’. `Sea of Ghosts’  is currently available in paperback or on Kindle. Campbell’s first Fantasy series, the `Deepgate Codex’ Trilogy was like an Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life. This book has the same visual flair but a more coherent plot. Campbell is a superb `world-builder’, so the setting dominates the story.

Mankind has overthrown the powerful Unmer who used to enslave them but at a terrible price. The seas of their world are rising, covering all but high ground. Worse still, the Unmer have poisoned the seas with caustic brine. People who are submerged in this brine turn into the shark-skinned creatures known as the Drowned, who die horribly if brought back to the surface. The surviving Unmer are contained by the psychic powers of the Haurstaf witches but the Haurstaf only protect those who can afford to pay them. Trove – the mysterious and magical objects left behind by the Unmer – is much prized but little understood. It seems that liberation from slavery has only given men the freedom to slaughter each other and squabble over trinkets while their world drowns.

The story begins in the Trove Market in the Imperial city of Losoto. Colonel Thomas Granger and four  soldiers from the unit known as `the Gravediggers’ deal with a sudden incursion by two very dangerous Unmer but when Granger tells the Emperor Hu some home truths, he and his men are falsely accused of treason. Warned by Haurstaf witch, Sister Briana, Granger and his right-hand man Sergeant Creedy manage to escape from Losoto inside a dead dragon. They end up in the watery city of Ethugra where Granger conceals his identity and is soon reduced to running one of the many private jails. Prisoners in these jails only survive if their relatives keep sending enough money to pay for their keep and make their jailer a profit.  Granger’s ramshackle brine-flooded jail is one of the worst, but a conscience is something he can no longer afford. The colonel is desperate to buy a ship that will take him far beyond Hu’s empire.

Everything changes when Granger acquires two new prisoners and one of them turns out to be the daughter he never knew he had. Ianthe is blind and deaf but she has the unique gift of being able to see and hear through other people’s senses. This gift could make her a candidate to join the Haurstaf, and she is able to use it to find Trove on the seabed by looking through the eyes of the Drowned. Ianthe’s uncanny skill at finding treasure turns her into her a valuable `commodity’. She is kidnapped by the criminal boss of  Ethugra, a dedicated collector of Trove called Maskelyne. He takes Ianthe to seas infested with wild dragons and ghost ships to hunt for treasures that may help Maskelyne to solve the riddle of the Unmer. Ianthe pretends to co-operate but she is determined to avenge the murder of her mother. Meanwhile Granger has been captured and sentenced to death by the vindictive Emperor Hu. Can the colonel remember how to be a hero and  beat impossible odds to rescue his daughter?

Is Fantasy fiction getting more violent? Or is it just that the violence is now being described in a more detailed and realistic way? The torture, mutilations and killings in `Sea of Ghosts’ are at the limit of what I can take, though anyone who can sit through an episode of `Game of Thrones’ without closing their eyes during the gory bits will have no problem coping with this powerfully written story.  Campbell has created a brutal world where the characters struggle to survive and readers may find it hard to get their moral bearings. In the clever prologue (misleadingly titled `A Tapestry of Sex’) a group of soldiers plan to blow the head off a little girl. It’s with a sinking feeling that you realise that these rough  soldiers are the `good guys’, or as good as it gets in this novel.  Campbell sometimes makes the reader feel sorry for the monstrous Unmer, in spite of the terrible things they have done in the past, while human characters who initially appear quite decent, such as the telepathic Sister Briana, turn out to have dark secrets. Ianthe begins as a stroppy teenager, exploited by nearly everyone around her, but terrible events bring out her ruthless side and turn her into an accidental killer. In the heartless city of Ethugra, Granger has become a man who lets prisoners starve to death if they can’t pay. It is a hard task to make such a man sympathetic but I feel that Campbell succeeds because he writes about human nature with understanding and compassion.

Essentially this is a story about two fathers- Maskelyne and Granger. Maskelyne makes a fascinating villain. He’s inventively cruel and convincingly delusional about his abusive relationship with his wife, but he’s also a brave and competent leader. Maskelyne is one of the few people using his intelligence to investigate the powers of the Unmer and work out where they came from. He sees himself as a dedicated father to his little boy, Jontney, and is set on saving his dying world for Jontney’s sake. Anything and anyone that gets in his way will be ruthlessly dealt with. Granger is a reluctant father at first but the responsibility of caring for a family breaks down his indifference to the sufferings around him and gives him a new reason to live. The one really happy scene in the book, in which Granger gives Ianthe and her mother some ridiculously frilly new clothes, is almost heartbreaking. Once Granger is roused to anger, he too is completely ruthless in his quest to save his daughter `even if I have to walk across the seabed to get there’. Epic is an over-used word, but the danger-filled journey of this anguished father does have a truly epic quality about it.

With its dragons, witches, sorcerers and brilliantly described magical treasures, `Sea of Ghosts’ sounds like traditional  Fantasy but it has more in common  with the best of contemporary Science Fiction. Maskelyne is trying to to find rational explanations for the Unmer’s inventions  and speculates that they have experimented with infinity and drawn energy from `the scraps of former universes’. This is a novel packed with big ideas and Campbell has imagined not just one world but a whole range of universes. There is an exciting sense that `The Gravedigger Chronicles’ will go on building in depth and complexity and that the plot is likely to move in unexpected directions. If you are looking for something with the sweep and grandeur of Herbert’s `Dune’ series, `Sea of Ghosts’ could be the novel to try. Until next week…