The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Swept Away? (Review: Sea by Heidi R. Kling)

Heidi R. Kling
Putnam 2010

Haunted by recurring nightmares since her mother’s disappearance over the Indian ocean three years before, fifteen-year old California girl Sienna Jones reluctantly travels with her psychiatrist father’s volunteer team to six-months post-tsunami Indonesia where she meets the scarred and soulful orphaned boy, Deni, who is more like Sea than anyone she has ever met.
She knows they can’t be together, so why can’t she stay away from him? And what about her old best friend-turned-suddenly-hot Spider who may or may not be waiting for her back home? And why won’t her dad tell her the truth about her mother’s plane crash? The farther she gets from home, the closer she comes to finding answers. 
(Blurb courtesy of

I had been looking forward to this book for quite a while and it was with great expectations that I sat down to read. The thing about great expectations is that you sometimes set yourself up for a bit of a fall. While Sea lapped pleasantly at my toes it did not, I'm afraid, sweep me away...

Character-wise, our protagonist is Sienna (Sea). I wasn't sure about her at all, although I warmed to her slightly towards the end of the book (sadly, a bit too late). To be honest I really found her utter lack of thought when it came to anyone other than herself infuriating. I am aware, though, that she has only just turned fifteen when we meet her and that many fifteen year olds lack the emotional maturity often ascribed to them in a lot of YA fiction. Placing Sienna in Indonesia during the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami only shows up her lack of maturity further as she seems more interested in checking out hot boys than in her surroundings – I just wanted to shake her. It is only towards the end of the story that she gains perspective not only on how the country has suffered but also on the grief that she has been unable to let go off since the death of her mother. During this last section you finally get a glimpse at who Sienna may grow up to be – she makes difficult decisions for all the right reasons and I started to really admire her. Particularly as earlier in the book I would have predicted that, faced with such choices, she would have probably thrown a tantrum (if only an inner-monologued one) and stomped off to wallow.

As Sienna's hot Indonesian boy of choice, Deni is a pretty interesting character. His mix of sly humour, good looks and tragic back story is a bit of a winner. I found the way in which he interacted with Sienna far more interesting than the way in which she acted around him. As his personal history gradually emerges he becomes increasingly compelling. The sections with Deni in Aceh are the most gripping and moving of the book and I wish that these had been dwelt on rather than the romance between him and Sienna, which seemed trivial in comparison. A romance that did work for me, however, was the tentative one between Sienna and her long time friend Spider. Spider was lovely, thoughtful and a particularly realistic portrayal of a confused teenage boy. Sadly he does not appear much in the book but his relationship with Sienna rings far truer than that of her and Deni. Perhaps because they have known each other for longer than 30 seconds...

And that is the crux of my issue with Sea. I just don't believe that a girl would arrive in a foreign country and, seemingly within an hour of arriving, start to fall in love with a resident of the orphanage that she is there to help. Sienna is only in Indonesia for two weeks and her extremely intense relationship with Deni seemed hugely rushed. If Sienna had been staying in the country for the entire summer, I would have had no issue with them developing such a relationship. Certainly, I would not have objected to Sea being a longer book in order to lengthen their time together, as the writing shows real talent and captures Indonesia beautifully and, at times, tragically. I concede, however, that the time period regarding their relationship may be intentionally short – people do strange things when thrown together in intense situations and being surrounded by death can make one want to truly live. And a crazy relationship such as Sienna and Deni's certainly would make you feel alive.

All this being said, I do think that Sea makes for enjoyable summer reading.  Heidi R. Kling really does write awfully well – it is impossible not to be dragged into the exotic and troubling arena that is Indonesia post-disaster. She highlights the difficulties that the country, and particularly its children, continue to go through today with care and subtlety. The general premise of a young American being confronted with foreign peers in such a foreign situation really is a great one. I certainly will pick up Heidi's next book, and as a debut novel I have seen much, much worse. Sadly for me though, I think that a few small issues stopped Sea from capturing me completely.


Amelia said…
"I am aware, though, that she has only just turned fifteen when we meet her and that many fifteen year olds lack the emotional maturity often ascribed to them in a lot of YA fiction."

^^^that is so epic! I've got to write that down and put it on my wall. XD

I've been looking forward to this book but now I'm treading softly. I HATE self-centered characters on any level. Oy. Characters like that just burn my toast. >.>

OH! And you've won an award!! -->>


Carla said…
I really loved this book, I found Heidi's writing style to be so lush and exotic. I do agree that as a character Sea wasn't very mature but I put that down to her age and the fact that I was just as self centred and more bothered about hot boys than anything else. Sometimes I still am. I loved the way that even though you didnt love this book as much as you expected, you still have written such a thoughtful well written review. Thanks, this is why I love blogging so much, because it's so nice to see other peoples opinions on books you enjoy.
Vicki said…
What a fantastic review... I agree with Carla, very thoughtful and well balanced. I've had that over anticipation thing a couple of times recently. I wasn't all that sure about this one before, I actually think you made me want to read it myself now.
Lauren said…
Brilliant balanced review - I've read some reviews of this by people who loved it, so it's great to see a slightly less enamoured point of view. I like the sound of how much the MC grows over the course of the story, even if the timescale is pretty short. I think I could go either way with this, but I definitely still want to read it.
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