In Great Waters
by Kit Whitfield
Cover Artist: Photo: Zena Holloway/Photographer's Choice (mermaid)
Darryl Torckler/The Image Bank (light rays thorugh water)
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345491657
Date: 27 October 2009 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In Deep Waters is a masterful exploration of what its like to be between worlds. In this case, these worlds are medieval Europe and the depths of the ocean, and the people caught between them are the hybrid offspring of humans and merfolk. Kit Whitfield has created a fascinating alternate history, in which all of Europe's coastal countries are ruled by the offspring of humans and ocean-dwelling humanoids called deepsmen that guard the shores of each country from naval attack.
These half-breeds have been elevated to royalty because of the necessity of maintaining the trust of the deepsmen who guard the coasts. However, this makes bastards, illegitimate hybrids, a threat to the throne who will be burned alive if captured.
Henry is one such bastard, and after being abandoned to the land by his mother he is raised in secret by nobles intent on overthrowing the current ruling family of England. Taken in while still a child he must adapt himself to the many differences between the desperate struggle for survival which characterized his life in the sea and the intricate courtly intrigues which confront him on the land. He must struggle not only to avoid capture and execution by the rulers of England, but also to understand.
The other major character looks at the challenges of being between two worlds from the other direction. Ann is a younger daughter of the ruling house of England, a house that has become weak and unstable due to centuries of inbreeding among the royal houses of Europe. As an heir to such a precarious ruling house, Ann's life is fraught with uncertainty. A quirk of ancestry has given her a luminescent face, which serves to further separate her from those around her. She is left to face the dangers to her family and herself, both from other nations and from her own scheming courtiers.
In Deep Waters is a powerful and masterfully written novel. Both Ann and Henry grabbed me from the very beginning as fascinating characters, alien enough to keep the reader's interest while staying easily understandable enough for empathy. The most striking feature of both characters is how out of place they are, both on land and in the sea. As hybrids they are slower and weaker than their deepsmen kin in the water, but their weak legs condemn them to use crutches on the land, highlighting their lack of belonging.
The novel is a coming of age story in many ways; both Ann and Henry have to try to find a place for themselves in a hostile and confusing world. This is expertly complemented with the alternate history setting; it is surprising how plausible Kit Whitfield makes a world of half-human aquatic monarchs seem. Most of the differences this makes to European history are subtle, but they combine to make an interesting twist on the familiar medieval fantasy milieu.
The one thing that might sour the reading experience for some readers is the comparative lack of action. Much of the novel is concerned with exploring and developing the psychologies of the characters and the texture of the world, and even when events occur which advance the plot they usually take the form of some kind of negotiation rather than violence. I didn't find this a flaw; I found that the richness of the characters easily sustained the narrative. If your taste runs more to fast moving action plots, you may want to skip this one. However, if your in the mood for a well-written alternate history with deeply engaging characters and an exploration of the difficulties of coming of age that avoids the pitfalls of teen angst, then this is the book for you.