Another month, another of my print reviews transplanted to EA - this time, of a very fine novel indeed: In Great Waters (2009), by Kit Whitfield, an early candidate for my best books of the year list.
We see plenty of medievalesque royal courts in fantasy. Rarely are they handled with such deftness and depth as in Kit Whitfield’s second novel: not glittering courtiers trading witty barbs, but a precarious, constricted world, where threats come from all sides, and people do terrible things for the sake not so much of power as security.
For centuries, the crowned heads of Whitfield’s alternate Europe have been descendants of a single queen, Angelica, who married the Doge of Venice, forging an alliance between the Venetians and her mermaid-like ‘deepsmen’ kin. Her halfbreed offspring became sought-after spouses for every monarch who desired deepsmen aid for trade and defence.
But draconian measures to protect the bloodline from bastard halfbreeds have caused weakness; as the story opens, England’s royal house totters under the weight of inbreeding. When a young halfbreed is abandoned by his tribe on the coast, a disaffected noble has him reared in secret, grooming him to snatch the throne.
Whitfield is excellent on the struggles of the boy, Henry, to adapt to life and speech on land. She has a keen eye, and uses rich, sensually-descriptive language, for differences both physical – legs bred for swimming adapt poorly to walking – and conceptual. Clothes are “a blindfold for his body”; the sharp lines of houses are alien and threatening for one born to water. While Henry is concealed for safety, his royal counterpart, the princess Anne, hides in plain sight at her ailing grandfather’s court, retreating from danger and duty behind a mask of feigned stupidity. She is an exceptionally nuanced study of nobility’s privileges and strictures, growing into authority and shouldering the burdens of her (female, half-deepsman) “body politic”.
Elements of the ending don’t quite fit with the high standards of unsentimental complexity set in the rest of this measured, thoughtful novel; but overall this is stunning, beautifully written work.
[Review originally appeared in SFX 181 (April 2009).]
I really can't recommend this book highly enough. The writing is beautiful - rich and measured, tactile and often visceral, as in the opening paragraph:
Henry could remember the moment of his birth. Crushing pressure, heat, and then the contact with the sea, terrifyingly cold - but at the same time a release from constriction, the instant freedom of the skin. His mother gathered him up in her arms and swam to the surface, cradling him on her slick breast to lift his head above water for his first breath. Henry never forgot it, the mouthful of icy air, the waves chopping his skin, a woman's arms holding him up in a world suddenly without warmth.
Such prose excellently suited to a story that is, after all, in large part about physicality. A central theme is the characters' relationships with their bodies, and their bodies' with the world around them; how so much of power, and its lack, reside in the body, made literal and inescapably visible through the physical differences between landsmen and deepsmen:
Anne felt a sudden, unexpected sense of kinship with the captive boy. She had faced too many situations, surrounded by demands, questions, threats, where she had no way out. She could not hide herself among the crowd, could not claim ignorance, irresponsibility. Her face and form spoke loud, a clanging bell proclaiming to everyone who saw, here was a royal body, a body politic, a body expected to have answers.
I love that last line: "a clanging bell" is such a well-chosen image, one that fits the character's world and expresses her alarm at the very idea of standing out, and the usage of "body politic" is very neat.
The world, too, is interesting and well-rounded, although it felt more 16th-century than 14th, at least to me - there was something about the on-going effort, not always successful, to stamp out dissent that was reminiscent of Henry VIII. It is full of ordinary lives being lived and little, telling details, like the way the balance of power and culture is reflected in naming patterns. For example, most characters’ family names derive from bodies of water (Westlake, Claybrook), and noble titles come from rivers (Mersey, Thames) not land holdings.
Ordinarily, I would find it difficult to believe that any single dynasty could remain in power - not just in England, but any medievalesque country - for something like five centuries, but Whitfield makes a reasonable case (through backdrop and main plot, rather than much explicit explanation) for the combined force of a very weighty tradition, the need for good relations with coastal deepsmen, and the relatively-effective deterrance of burning at the stake as a punishment for rivals.
And, of course, the story is all about a challenge to the status quo...