Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Published: Jonathan Cape, Del Rey, 2009
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

“During a time of great upheaval, the citizens of Venice make a pact that will change the world. The landsmen of the city broker a treaty with a water-dwelling tribe of deepsmen, cementing the alliance through marriage. The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed–and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deepswoman becomes punishable by death. Any “bastard” child must be destroyed.

This is an Earth where the legends of the deep are true–where the people of the ocean are as real and as dangerous as the people of the land. This is the world of intrigue and betrayal that Kit Whitfield brings to life in an unforgettable alternate history: the tale of Anne, the youngest princess of a faltering England, struggling to survive in a troubled court, and Henry, a bastard abandoned on the shore to face his bewildering destiny, finding himself a pawn in a game he does not understand.  Yet even a pawn may checkmate a king.”

My Thoughts:

In Great Waters is a supernatural alternate history, though I don’t think that it adheres strictly to any particular historical events.  The story seems to be set in a Europe several centuries in our past, and it focuses primarily on the English royal court.  The main difference between this world and our own is the presence of merpeople, known as deepsmen.  The deepsmen are not the shell-wearing princesses of Disney cartoons.  They’re violent and clannish, have a simple language based on clicks, whistles, and other sounds that carry cleanly through water, and are quite biologically dissimilar to humans, called ‘landsmen’.  The deepsman tribes represent a naval advantage to any nation that can hold their loyalty.  I liked how the story fleshed out the deepsmen’s society and way of seeing the world, and the attention that was paid to how their presence would affect human society.

Though I enjoyed the exploration of the role of deepsmen in European politics, certain elements seemed rather implausible to me.  First of all, I did not feel that there was a compelling reason for all the coastal royal families to interbreed with deepsmen.  The purpose of the interbreeding was to gain the ability to speak with the deepsmen and form alliances with them. It seemed like creating a translator position at court to be filled with non-royal hybrids would have been a much less extreme way to achieve the same goal. Considering how obsessed the royals were with protecting their bloodlines, I had a hard time accepting that they would all consent to interbreed with an entirely different species.  The mingling of blood also left the royal families as physical cripples, both on land and in the sea. I would have liked to have been given a convincing reason why the monarchs themselves absolutely needed to have deepsman blood.   

The eventual ban on interbreeding seemed a little unmotivated as well.  I suppose I wasn’t successfully impressed with the importance of deepsman blood to think that executing all hybrids would be a reasonable step in securing the position of the royalty.  After all, in reality, all humans are of the correct physical form to overthrow their monarchs, but most monarchs don’t seriously propose that slaughtering all their citizens is the only way to secure their power.  It didn’t really make sense to me in terms of protecting royal bloodlines, either.  The royal bloodlines were already mixed with the deepsmen, anyway, and preventing further mixing only resulted in severe birth defects from inbreeding.  It seemed like the worst of both options—the royal bloodlines were already ‘tainted’ and they still had to deal with genetic disorders.  I wished there could have been more of an explanation for this development in deepsman-landsman relations.

Though I had trouble buying some of the landsman policies regarding deepsman, I was very interested in the portrayal of the two societies and their differences.  On this topic, I particularly enjoyed the early story of the two hybrid protagonists, Anne and Henry.  Henry was an illegal hybrid who spent his first few years living with deepsmen.  I thought his introduction to above-water life was shown very skillfully.  It was clear that his worldview was shaped by his years underwater, and that this affected his efforts to make sense of his new world. Anne, on the other hand, was a child of the English royal family.  She was very conscious of her surroundings from a young age, and I enjoyed watching her slowly develop a construct of her world and the rules that bound it.   I loved these chapters, and their exploration of how the main characters were shaped by their upbringing and environment.

However, as the story progressed, it seemed to lose its tension and drive.  Both protagonists seemed to live lives marked by abnormally good luck, so their personal journeys never felt as difficult as they might have.  This became more pronounced later in the story, where their run of luck began to seem progressively more unlikely.  The protagonists’ good fortune also seemed to outstrip their ambition, which also seemed to mute the joy of their successes.  For instance, the only reason Henry ever wanted to be king to avoid being executed—he had no real interest whatsoever in landsmen. I remained interested in what would become of Henry and Anne, but I was never quite as engaged as I was with the story of their early lives.    

My Rating: 3/5

In Great Waters is an interesting fantastical alternate history story, where the existence of merpeople, called deepsmen, has changed European politics.  The deepsmen are not the cute kind usual to children’s stories, but are a territorial people who live violent, often short, lives. The detail given to developing the deepsman society and their effects on strengthened the story, though their exact role in society stretched credulity in some ways.  I most enjoyed the story of the early life of the two protagonists, which showed how their environments shaped the way they saw their world.  The story seemed to lose steam as it progressed, mostly because success seemed to come a bit too easily to the main characters. In Great Waters was definitely a creative and interesting story, despite my complaints, and it was fun to read such a different take on a familiar supernatural creature! 

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