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In Great Waters: A Novel Paperback – October 27, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Whitfield (Benighted) creates a fantasy Earth both instantly recognizable and drastically changed: history was altered by the deepsmen, merfolk who first made an appearance at Venice during the Middle Ages and now, a few centuries later, control the seas. They insist that earthly rulers be part-deepsmen, placing halfbreed children such as Henry, terrified to be washed up on shore after five years underwater, and Anne, a king's clumsy granddaughter, in play for the English throne. The tale's style is formal and historical, packed thick with detail both overt and subtle. Anne is convincing as inconvenient royalty, the kind the family would rather forget, while Henry embodies the deepsmen's unhuman priorities and desires. Supporting characters, most neither wholly good nor wholly wicked, are given in stark, memorable detail. Fans of English history, dense prose and high-level political maneuvering will love it. (Nov.)
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In a fantasy Europe, a race of merfolk guards the coasts. To keep it loyal, the monarchs on land agree to interbreed with it. Hence, those kings are only half human and, as such, handicapped both on land and in the sea as well as subject to the dangers of interbreeding. For any young bastard, as the crossbred are called, may challenge the king of any land. The half-breed Whistle is abandoned on the English coast by his merwoman mother. As he matures, he becomes the center of a plot to claim the English crown. Whitfield’s premise is quite original, and she develops it through the insights of Whistle, aka Henry, and a princess, Anne of England. This isn’t a romance novel, despite the Whistle-Anne relationship, but is as realistic as fantasy can be. If in her second novel Whitfield seems a bit studied, she is a competent enough storyteller, and this is a very interesting read. --Frieda Murray
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Whitfield does an incredible job of universe building. When this book was recommended to me, I thought "mermaids ... really?" But wow, this is not some sparkly young adult novel. The stark realism of Whitfield's world is incredible, and at times painful, to behold.
I admit that when the story began, told from the perspective of the foundling half-breed, Whistle, I despised him. He was so unrepentantly, believably alien. I found him incredibly repulsive from his animal thought processes to his abhorrence for everything about "landsmen" culture to his physical description. The reader is forced into Whistle's perspective, grappling with his "cloven tail" rather than legs, his black eyes, his tough gray skin, sharpened nails and teeth. He is completely foreign in thought and description. Whistle is a bastard, a half-breed, caught between the land of the deepsmen and the landmen. He is a missing link, in so many ways.
And yet, when we switch from Whistle's perspective to Anne's, it challenges the reader even further.
Anne is an English royal and behaves as I believe most readers would expect an English royal to behave. Anne is very familiar. But she and Whistle are physically the same, both half-breeds.
This book does an incredible job of challenging the reader's preconceived beliefs. By taking our commonplace history and re-casting it through the lens of this alternate universe it points of the absurdity of so much of human culture. The theological essays on how deepsmen are created in the image of God, and how the deepsmen never Fell, it was thought provoking to say the least.
The greatest triumph of the book is how believable it makes the unbelievable.
It took me quite a while, but I did really get into the book. All of the court intrigues and politics made my head spin, but it was a damn good read. I'm not really sure I ever came to like Whistle, but I do feel like he came out of the story better than any of the other characters. The story was tense, heartbreaking, and (much to my shock) laugh out loud funny in some places.
Whitfield is perhaps one of the ultimate subverters of the Masquerade, and whole theme of hidden fantasy within the present world. Her scenario takes just the opposite assumption--posit the existence of a fantasy element, even one as detached and minor as mermaids and it eventually transforms everything. In her novel contact with "deepsmen" and humans around the Renaissance lead to one Venitian family brining them openly into full on political and military conflict, leading to widespread rise and fall of different dynasties across Europe.
It is then a fantasy novel without magic, but with the presence of non-humans leading to a full-fledged alternate history that alters a lot of patterns for intrigue, culture and daily life. In Great Waters isn't about how that change is established. This element is given as backstory, instead it focuses on a specific regional situation several hundred years later where the change has already been made and everyone accepts the uses of human royalty linking politically to deepsmen and the level of intrigue for both species is deeply intertwined. It's refershing to see a strange fantasy situation taken for granted, as part of the enviornment that people have to work within. Characters in the novel find the arrangement inconvenient at points, but it's an accepted part of the sider environment with a lot of practical force behind it. The danger isn't that spurring an alliance with deepsmen will cause, for instance, England to get wiped out by them--even for an island country the water environment doesn't pose that kind of existential threat, there's simply no incentive for the deepsmen en masse to go up on land. Rather, the danger is that France with an alliance of humans and deepsmen will gain a compelling advance in navy and commerce, and that this development will lead to the decline of England's political position. In a way the book works precisely in deflating expectations of wonder and awe, by having characters accept their world largely as it is, as the unpredictable but rational situation they are accustomed to. By refraining from the moments of horror or amazement at the setup of the co-existing environments (although there is a lot of surprise when water and land societies co-mingle directly) it brings a greater sense of credibility to the setting, while also emphasizing awe in the reader for the lengths of worldbuilding.
In another strength the deepsmen are entwined with humanity but they haven't become human, and in the story told half from the point of view of one we see a very different frame of reference. It's not intrinsically better than humanity or worse--it's a psychology framed by a different environment that has a different take on basic things like family, sex and competition. One way this contrast comes up is religion--the deepsmen character, when required for social position to profess at least a nominal acceptance of God and the church refuses flat out, considering the whole concept absurd. Whitfield doesn't do the obvious with that setup, and refrains from either endorsing a theist or atheist viewpoint. Instead that framing is used to explore how separate the two viewpoints are in this case, how different the non-belief is from the human types of rejection of religion that generally occur. Highly different and yet symbiotic, such is the situation between the two species and it makes for a very stron gpremise.
The tone of the story is unsentimental and at points rather cold, and it refuses to implement the type of romantic atmosphere one would expect from the drawn out relationship at the core of the book's structure. It's not a depressing or particularly pessimistic book though, and feels more like a realistic exploration of the strange point of departure, with a range of accompanying human virtues, vices, betrayals and loyalties. Excellent writing, very engaging narrative, and some very creative ideas at work. However the point I found it most effective was in characterization, making an overall atmosphere, and showing a protagonist that doesn't share common human assumptions in a number of ways. There's a pleasing ambiguity across most of the book, it being quite unclear what will happen next or how the larger issues of the setting will play themselves out.
I'd say this book is up there with the very best of 2009, and it made it onto my Hugo nomination list for the year. Didn't get on, though, more's the pity. This point was one in my reading where I was reading a lot of recommendations for unfamiliar authors in fantasy and science fiction, and as the last half-dozen posts shows a number of these had modest or significant failure. It was good to hit a stark, flat out excellent book, one that shows speculative fiction can blow the lid off our assumptions and normal patterns and deliver a story extremely unique and strange, but at the same time fully coherent and 'realistic'.
Better than: Legacy by Greg Bear
Worse than: The Scar by China Mieville.
Most recent customer reviews
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