The story centers around Captain Rafe and his ship, the Celestial Jewel, which is actually more of a floating home for the recently deceased. Rafe sails the ocean rescuing spirits from sea monsters that don’t just wreck ships and drown sailors, but also consume the souls of their victims. The Jewel and its ghostly crew rescue floating spirits from this sad fate, console the departed with the fact that nothing consumed their eternal remnant (hey, silver linings), and then either usher them off to the afterlife or take them on as crew.
But Rafe isn’t just sailing the good ship Limbo around out of charity. He’s actually a wayward god of death. His sister, the goddess of the moon, has a vendetta against him—a vendetta that usually involves those pesky sea monsters. Being on the outs with the rest of the Pantheon, Rafe has tolerated this arrangement for a long time. But near the beginning of the story, a dark force prods the Moon Goddess into going too far, and it’s up to the seafaring god to kick some butt—both monstrous and divine—and set things right.
The book is most successful when it focuses on this magical, swashbuckling adventure. The concept of a ghost ship told from the ghosts’ perspective is smart and unique. Rafe as a sort of Davy Jones incarnate captures the imagination. The Moon Goddess’ descent into madness is entertaining as well, especially when an ex-mortal gets entangled in it. And there are some poetic scenes and fantastic images interspersed through the book that really hit home.
However, the book does occasionally venture into rougher waters. Sometimes it tries to explore themes of death and loss by ruminating on grieving ghostly characters in a way that just didn’t feel earned to me. In those moments, the poetry can fall a bit flat. Likewise, the sea monsters can be intriguing and creepy, but at other times play the role of Foot Clan ninjas: showing up just to be mowed down in the service of providing conflict.
But the greatest challenge the book must navigate is having a god in the lead role. I’m not sure it’s always successful in this regard. Rafe’s divine power and the reverence of others toward him get employed a bit too much in the solution of mortal problems, and towards the middle of the book he begins to feel like a celestial Gary Sue. This is exacerbated by the appearance of some other gods who act way too deferential to Rafe, diminishing the sense of conflict in the book considerably. Thankfully, Rafe eventually dispenses with all of the jibber-jabber and sets out to beat-down his sister (for justice!). Once he does, the conflict gets way more literal, and the book becomes way more fun.
Overall, Ghosts of the Sea Moon is a unique story that delivers on its promise of supernatural seafaring fun, even if the sailing does get choppy at times. If nautical undeath be something you wish, then pick up Rafe’s book with the big lunar fish.