Thursday, April 1, 2010

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great Waters (British edition: Jonathan Cape, 2009; U.S. edition: Del Rey, 2009) is an alternate history fantasy set in England in the equivalent of the Elizabethan era. In addition to standard-issue humans there are mer-people, presented in unsentimental, un-Disney-fied style. The two tribes of sentient beings are called landsmen and deepsmen. While there are a number of differences in physical characteristics -- deepsmen are larger, stronger, and have a single large tail instead of legs -- the key similarity is that the two tribes are cross-fertile.

History in the novel diverges from our own in the early 9th Century when the deepsmen announce themselves in the canals of Venice. Until this time deepsmen were assumed to be a sailor’s fantasy. Handily revealing the vulnerabilities of wood-hulled ships, Venice was the ideal city for them to demonstrate their power: the murky waters of the canals gave easy and undetectable access throughout the city. The deepsmen invasion precipitates a political crisis in Venice among the landsmen. The leaders of Venice send for help from the French to defeat the deepsmen. The people of Venice rebel, rejecting subjugation to the French as more objectionable than the trouble that the deepsmen present. At this critical juncture a half-breed woman, Angelica, emerges from the water and allies herself with the rebellious people. She directs the deepsmen to attack the approaching French navy and the French are soundly defeated. Angelica, with her unprecedented sea power becomes the ruler of Venice by popular acclaim. Her children and grandchildren are sought as spouses by every royal family whose nation has a navy. Angelica’s offspring are required in order for each nation with a coastline to ally with local deepsmen. All of this is backstory for the narrative at hand, which takes place about 800 years later.

The English royal family has no male heir. A half-deepsman boy, Henry, found tossed up on the shore, is being raised in secret as a possible usurper for the throne. Anne, granddaughter of the current king, realizes her family’s predicament and works toward a solution.

Henry and Anne are both troubled and dysfunctional, but they are troubled and dysfunctional in interesting ways. They both are starved for attention from their largely absent mothers. Henry’s mother shoves him out of the water at age five and he never sees her again. They both have entirely absent fathers. Deepsmen don’t pair-bond and fathers have no role in nurturing the young. Anne’s father was killed in a battle in Scotland when she was quite young. Henry makes do with a surrogate father, the emotionally aloof scholar Allard, who found Henry on the beach and attempts to raise him and civilize him. Anne’s surrogate father is Bishop Westlake, the moral and ethical center of the novel.

The stories of these two distressed childhoods are the best parts of the book. Henry, when he arrives on land is nearly feral, as if he has been raised by wolves, with nothing resembling an education and no social customs that the landsmen recognize. Deepsmen have no recorded history, relying solely on a rudimentary oral tradition to pass on information about hunting, tribal dominance behavior, and basic survival. Allard must teach Henry how to dress himself, the English language, history, and how to interact with others in something other than aggressive displays to establish dominance. Henry’s isolation is nearly complete. If word of his existence reached authorities, his execution would be certain.

Anne, by contrast, has been educated in English and Latin and church dogma. Her isolation is amid people. She has tutors and maids, where familiarity and friendship is dangerous to both parties. Family is estranged or largely absent. The predators at court are every bit as hungry and dangerous as those at sea. Anne’s strategy is to pretend stupidity, hoping to be non-threatening and invisible. As part of her deepsmen genetic heritage, she has a large patch of bioluminescent flesh on her face that glows whenever she is embarrassed.

Because of their partial deepsmen blood, Henry and Anne have physical differences from landsmen, making it difficult to walk upright, something they share with nearly all the royal families of Europe. They can manage to walk with crutches, if gracelessly.

After these two characters and their childhoods are presented, quite wonderfully, the story structure and plot lurches into action, rather awkwardly, with Anne chasing after a cure for Bishop Westlake, who has fallen ill. Henry, through a rather large coincidence, falls into the hands of Bishop Westlake and a plan is hatched to marry Henry to Anne and place them on the throne. The machinations at court are not entirely convincing and obstacles tend to fall away easily. As his coronation approaches, Henry causes a fuss by refusing to swear an oath to uphold the Church and keep the laws of God. He finds Christianity inscrutable and the more people attempt to explain it to him the more he rejects it. This threatens to alienate their key ally, the Bishop. The controversy is dropped without resolution.

There is a lot to like: the dysfunctional childhoods of Henry and Anne, the imagery of the royal families of Europe on crutches, and Anne’s delightful bioluminescent blushes. More importantly, Whitfield has done a service to the mythology of merfolk by providing this fresh and unsentimental variation.

Still, I can’t help thinking that the backstory about Angelica’s conquest of Venice 800 years earlier, leading to the introduction of deepsmen blood throughout the royal families of Europe, which is developed in considerably more detail in the book than the summary above suggests, might have made a superior novel to the one at hand.

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