Outwardly, Ferris seems to have a pretty put-together life. But one night, a strange visitor tells him he needs rest, relaxation, and a healthy dose of self-reflection. When Ferris next wakes up, he inexplicably finds himself aboard a fantastical ship named Sea Queen, sailing a sea of literal chocolate under a technicolor rainbow. He counts a guitarist named Cole, a drummer named Scallywag, a detective and his miniature pegasus, and a pair of ladies named Molly and Camilla among his new companions. But the eclectic group talks in familiar tones of the most absurd things: Miss Take’s sartorial faux pas, Miss Endeavor’s not-so-mysterious disappearance, an elusive man named the Alchemist, and the changing fortunes encountered on specific days of the week.
Ferris’ new companions talk of nothing, but their fanciful cruise to nowhere. His efforts to discern who they are, where they are going, and why they are on the Sea Queen at all go unanswered. But Ferris soon discovers that mentioning his life with his boyfriend, Harris, comes with unsavory consequences. Every time he thinks too long upon his relationship with Harris, the charmingly absurd Sea Queen morphs into a rusting vessel plowing through scrap metal. Worse, the usually pleasant Molly transforms into a murderous harpy intent on killing Ferris. He manages to evade the worst of her attacks with the help of Cole, the guitarist. And as quickly as the nightmare ship appears, it soon disappears. When he asks about this dark version of the ship, Ferris is told it is an alternate dimension and he ought to seek out the one called Alchemist.
But to find the Alchemist, Ferris must endure the dark dimension. When he finally manages to contact the Alchemist, he compels Ferris to contemplate the whole of his life during an event called the Winter Masquerade. Ferris must also reflect on who his fellow traveling companions are meant to represent. Suddenly, Ferris sees his life with new eyes and realizes how much he has sacrificed for appearances’ sake…but is he strong enough to change?
Based on the official blurb, I was hoping for an absurdist piece I could get lost in and I think Klehr certainly delivers. First, I appreciated the tidy “bookend” scenes with the monks that serve as a sort of bridge between Ferris’ real life and his time on the Sea Queen. For me, having that intermediary stage between the two worlds helped me accept the seeming folderol aboard the Sea Queen. Another crucial element that held the fantasy world aboard the Sea Queen together was the carefully consistent reference to concepts and people in that world. For example, there is a whole series of other passengers whose names are puns (Miss Represent, Miss Calculation, Miss Assumption) and seem to provide the main supporting cast (especially Molly and Camilla) with conversational topics. This coupled with the physical description of the Sea Queen’s world of chocolate seas and rainbow lights in the sky really helped me imagine Ferris landed in a world that had been in motion before he ever arrived and that temporary visitors like him were nothing out of the ordinary. In other words, the supporting characters did not seem to be there merely to prop up Ferris’ journey.
The reason for Ferris ending up on the Sea Queen is revealed gradually through the course of the book. I thought it was subtle and compelling how his life in the real world affects how he experiences the Sea Queen. At first, Ferris is just amazed at this bizarre world of people on a cruise to nowhere talking about other passengers Ferris cannot see and preparing for some fancy ball. His efforts to figure out how to disembark from the fanciful ship always seem to circle back to these same ship-bound events and it makes Ferris more anxious to get back to his own life. And he quickly learns the ship is not all carefree leisure. At several points, he finds himself transported to a dark, gritty version of the same ship where the formerly pleasantly aloof Molly is transformed into a murderous villain. The frequent flips from the happy-go-lucky version of the ship to the noir version ties in well to the overall plot of the story. In hindsight, I think the flip-flopping would make even more sense and the reader would be able to understand more foreshadowing on a second read through. For the sake of comparison, I think the two worlds and its various inhabitants remind me a little bit of the schtick from The Life of Pi (at least the film version).
Apart from the delightful worldbuilding, there is plenty of relationship drama that centers on Ferris. Over the course of the book, we learn the boyfriend he initially pines for is actually not all that great. We also get a tantalizing tease about Ferris’ “the one that got away.” The latter seems to be represented by the Cole character on the Sea Queen and a romance between the two kindles. This raised a couple of questions that were fun to contemplate, regardless of how they panned out in the story. If Ferris gets together with Cole on the Sea Queen, does that mean he finds a way to get the one that got away back? If Ferris can leave the Sea Queen and return to his real life, what about the other people aboard the Sea Queen?
My only real criticism of the book is how the wrap up after Ferris leaves the Sea Queen and returns to his real life felt a little glossed over. The events that happen immediately following Ferris’ return to his own life seemed to follow the same time frames as the preceding events. However, the story continues for a few years in the future to wrap up Ferris’ romantic life and this felt like a lot of time being compressed into a couple paragraphs…which, I thought, was sort of a disservice given it was Ferris’ love life that served as the basis for the book in general.
Overall, I found this story extremely enjoyable. The characters were eclectic and there is a lot to chew on when you compare their representations on the light and dark versions of the Sea Queen. I really enjoyed how Ferris’ love life served as the motivator for the plot and that this is viscerally reflected in the two versions of the ship. I also liked the way Klehr manages to build a significant bittersweet thread into a story that ultimately has a happy ending. This is a book I would recommend to anyone (with the caveat that there an on-page domestic abuse event and multiple references to emotional manipulation).