The Sea of the Dead is the third volume in The Chronicles of the Black Tulip, a fantasy adventure series for middle-grade readers by Memphis author Barry Wolverton. Twelve-year-old Bren Owen lives in the small town of Map, on the coast of Britannia, where his father, David, works as a mapmaker. The year is 1599 and Bren longs for the kind of excitement he reads about in books.
Soon after receiving an unusual gift from a dying sailor, he unexpectedly finds himself on a ship at sea seeking the elusive Vanishing Island and following its mysterious clues. Those clues and his new friend, Mouse, lead him to China, where Bren uses magic he doesn’t really understand to open the Dragon’s Gate—a portal to powerful ancient artifacts called the Eight Immortals—with disastrous results: though Mouse warned him not to open the Dragon’s Gate, “he had chosen wrong,” Wolverton writes. “He had been foolish and selfish and caused terrible destruction.”
After Bren suffers a great loss, he becomes sick of the life of travel he once craved and wants only to go home. He soon realizes that getting there won’t be that easy. When The Sea of the Dead opens, Bren and his sailor friend, Sean, are being pursued through the Himalayas by the monks of the League of Blood, who believe Bren has stolen a sacred book said to control all the world’s knowledge. Along the way, Bren and Sean are joined by friends and foes, including Lady Jean Barrett, an intrepid archaeologist and master of disguise.
Meanwhile, Bren’s father and a kindly bookseller friend have set out on their own journey across Asia as part of a Royal Survey mapmaking expedition, though their real mission is to find Bren and bring him home. But when they reach India they are captured by the murderous heir to the throne of Cashmere, which has been usurped by the Mogul emperor.
The two groups of travelers eventually converge, and mutually beneficial lines of trust are both established and broken. Conspiracies and double-crosses abound. During his perilous journey, Bren has faced life-threatening stab wounds and attacks from wild animals and thieves, among other terrors, but his own traveling companions may ultimately pose the greatest threat. And they have little patience with his often-expressed desire to return home. “All you wanted was to get away,” one of the dozens of characters in this book angrily points out to Bren. “Now all you want is to go back. Did it ever occur to you that going home isn’t going to solve anything? There life wasn’t what you wanted. Out here life hasn’t been what you expected. … The problem isn’t with life. Life is what it is. The problem is with you.”
It’s a fair point. Over the course of the series, readers watch Bren grow from a naively over-eager would-be adventurer into a wiser, world-weary traveler with a clearer understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses—and a greater appreciation for everything he left behind in Map. By the end of the story, a more mature and resolute Bren is determined to overcome any obstacle, including his own fear, to complete his journey and protect those he loves.
One word of advice: this is not a stand-alone story. Because of the complexity of the plot, it’s best to begin this series with the first book and read the books in order. Wolverton takes Bren and his companions on a whirlwind of an adventure covering an incredible amount of ground, and the non-stop action and magical elements are sure to keep young readers engaged to the very end. They may also empathize with Bren’s hard-won new understanding that there truly is no place like home.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
Tagged: Barry Wolverton, Book Review, Children & YA, Fiction, Tina Chambers