The Endless Ocean by Toby Bennett (The Inner Sea Cycle #1)

Simply put, Toby Bennett’s The Endless Ocean (The Inner Sea Cycle Book 1) is one of the most welcome surprises I’ve read in quite some time. I first heard about it when it was assigned to me as part of the fourth annual self-published fantasy blog-off (#SPFBO4) contest. Looking at the book’s Amazon page, there was only one review, three sentences long, from 2011. Its Goodreads page offered the same skimpy feedback: one review, very short and non-descriptive, several years old. Suffice to say, I wasn’t expecting much from this story. After all, how good could a book be with such little fanfare after being on the market for more than seven years? It turns out, it can be very, very good. The Endless Ocean is a rare treat: an unconventional, imaginative, and unpredictable tale, each chapter brimming with fresh ideas and exciting concepts. Bennett’s prose is strong and concise, the dialogue is swift and direct, and ideas crackle with originality and wonder. Although this book falls short in a few minor areas, this is a standout novel that deserves a much larger audience.

I’m hesitant to share details about the plot. The Amazon blurb seems intentionally vague, offering a scant synopsis of two orphans that are somehow linked to an event that threatens “every shore.” The book starts equally vague, with a dreamlike sequence that drops the reader amidst a shipwreck in a storm. Or is it? We are introduced to Clare as her spirit is pulled into the fray. The ship, the storm, a blind man calling her name from the crow’s nest – none of it makes sense, yet it all seems somehow familiar to her. A flash of violence, a flourish of magic, and a distant song… and Clare is shocked back into reality: she is in a classroom, failing her Navigation exam, with her scrying bowl shattered upon the floor. And so, we are launched into the first of many mysteries that propels Clare and her twin brother Adrian through a gauntlet of events that culminates into a fight for reality itself.

It may initially feel like formulaic territory: orphans with mysterious pasts in some type of magic school, destined for greater things. But the similarities stop there. What sets this book apart are the inventive characters, settings, and situations that leap off the page, and do so consistently throughout the story. There is a certain “wow” factor that seemed to top itself nearly every chapter: there is Eko, a telepathic, wise-cracking, gliding gecko familiar who might have the most interesting character arc of the entire book. There are land, sea, and air battles with terrifying fish creatures and silver-eyed hive-mind witches. There are references to the lost continent of Atlantis, ancient mythological rituals, and modern-day hubcaps. Yes, hubcaps. There is a menacing, blood-sucking mannequin figurehead who devours souls. There is a multiverse of realities, with an all-powerful goddess who is frozen outside of time. There is a divided soul at war with itself. There’s even a naval battle upon the roofs of a cluster of submerged city skyscrapers. And this is all before the halfway point of the story.

At its core, this is a pirate fantasy saga that ties together millennia-old legends of various races and creatures throughout an endless ocean, connected by gateways that span a multiverse of realities. The dreamlike haze in the story’s early pages are present throughout the book, and not everything is explained as neatly as one might expect. But Bennett does try and address the larger questions at hand, including the origin of supernatural species, the reasoning behind a cult-like cabal of witches and mages, and the politics that have either supported or suppressed the different world factions over time. With so many aspects to the story, it sometimes felt like the book had bitten off more than it could chew. But we don’t spend too much time lingering on one area or event before another plot revelation launches the story into new, uncharted waters. I appreciated the pace of the novel and felt like the story could have easily been bogged down by extraneous details and overzealous worldbuilding. Thankfully, Bennett stayed focused on telling Clare and Adrian’s story, which I found to be a shrewd decision.

Although the plot was thrilling and rife with excitement, there was distinct lack of characterization for some of our main protagonists. For example, the pirate captain Bill seemed like an all-knowing source of information that provided heavy exposition dumps at times. Later, I discovered there was a reason for this, but it still seemed convenient for one person to have all the answers our heroes might inquire about. However, many other supporting characters were well-developed through clever dialogue that quickly displayed their character traits. There was more showing than telling, and some characters’ developments felt natural and unforced. For others, though – especially Clare and Adrian – everything happened to them; they did not have much agency on their own. Major events encircled the twins at every turn, and at no point did I feel that they had any leeway to make their own decisions. They had no choice but to follow where the story would take them, so it was difficult to connect or empathize with them without seeing their morality or character tested.  

In summary, I found The Endless Ocean to be a breath of fresh air that ignores tropes and celebrates big ideas. It was a thrilling, page-turning read in which I was genuinely interested in seeing if its level of ingenuity was sustainable throughout, and it often was. It isn’t a perfect book; there were a few times that the characterizations felt a bit flat, and not every explanation or plot twist felt earned, yet its creativity and earnestness helped elevate it into something wondrous and quite original. I was happy to discover that there is a sequel to this story that exists, currently with zero ratings on Amazon and Goodreads. This will soon be rectified.

8/10 An unconventional and imaginative pirate saga that crackles with originality

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The Endless Ocean reader reviews

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