And The Ocean Was Our Sky, the latest novel from Class writer Patrick Ness, quite literally turns the story of Moby Dick upside down. But does it make for a whale of a time?
Reimagining a classic is never an easy task. How do you take something that people know and love so much, and twist it into something truly unique? Sometimes, you need to give it a modern makeover, like in Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock. Other times, it’s as easy as adding in a few puppets, like The Muppets Christmas Carol. But in the case of And The Ocean Was Our Sky, Patrick Ness has simply flipped things on their head. And we really do mean that quite seriously. In this world, up is down and down is up. Put aside your preconceptions, because this is a story all about different perspectives and interpretations. This is Moby Dick as you’ve never seen it before: the whales are our heroes, and mankind are the bad guys.
Although, of course, this isn’t actually Moby Dick turned upside down. Sure, it takes inspiration from a lot of key beats and themes that familiar readers will pick up on. But if you haven’t read the original tale, you’re at no disadvantage, and it’s still an accessible read. Instead, our narrator is a whale called Bathsheba. Part of a hunting pod led by the head-strong Captain Alexandra, we follow their hunt in a war against man. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward story, but there are plenty of interesting ideas bubbling away beneath the surface. By the end it takes some unexpected turns, and you’ll be left wondering: just what is really going on…?
Monsters of Men
At first glance, And The Ocean Was Our Sky shares a lot of similarities to Patrick Ness’ award-winning book, A Monster Calls. For starters, it’s a fairly brisk read – you can get through it in about an hour, if you try. It’s also a story big on concepts, rather than explosive action, compared to something like Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. (Although there is some action along the way, and some of it is rather explosive). Most notably though, it’s accompanied by a series of hauntingly beautiful illustrations that enhance the narrative tenfold. Rovina Cai’s drawings are breathtakingly striking, and honestly, one of the main reasons why you should go out and buy this book. Making strong use of colours (in particular, black and red), her pictures are gorgeous, eerie, and startling, all at once.
The plot itself though, while perfectly enjoyable, is perhaps not Ness’ best work. Admittedly, this may be due in part to the very premise of the story. While it’s an engaging, thought-provoking read, some ideas do come across a little vague and derivative at points. The story’s biggest strength is arguably its focus on the theme of prophecy. Myths and monsters are teased right from the beginning, and it builds and builds as the journey unfolds. But it’s not really until the last few pages that things really come into their own, which is a shame considering how interesting they prove to be. The ending is surprisingly shocking and climactic, and it’s clear what Ness was trying to achieve with it – but then, in a flash, it’s over. If only it had been given a little more breathing space to develop its fullest potential.
And The Ocean Was Our Sky, like Moby Dick before it, is a story worth experiencing. It’s not quite up to par with Ness’ previous efforts, and certainly nowhere near the lofty standard set by A Monster Calls. But there’s still plenty to like here. Refreshingly, Bathsheba’s tale isn’t overblown with any blubber. It’s easy to follow, with a streamlined simplicity that helps it swim along at a comfortable pace. The somewhat-ambiguous ending may leave a few readers confused or unsatisfied, but then again, that’s actually rather in keeping with the themes on display. And even if you’re not totally enamoured with the text, there’s always Rovina Cai’s amazing artwork to marvel at throughout. This is a book that will challenge and stimulate your senses all at once. Just remember to pay close attention to the subtext as you go. The devil is (quite literally) in the detail, after all…
And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness is available now.