Friday 16 April 2010

Book Review: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

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"In a tense, divided court, a young princess watches her mother struggle to hold the throne. On a remote coastal estate, a scholar finds a child washed up on the shore. Anne Henry, a Christian princess of the royal blood. A pagan bastard, groomed all his hidden, lonely life to make a grab for the crown. In this work of stunning imagination, Kit Whitfield has written a fictional history at once familiar and alien. Since the ninth century, when the deeps men invaded Venice, an uneasy alliance has held between the people of the land and the sea. That alliance was brokered by the warrior queen, Angelica, half landsman, half deeps man, the mother of the royal houses of Europe.

"Now, centuries later, no navy can cross the seas without allies in the ocean - and without deeps men guarding its shores, no nation can withstand invasion. The hybrid kings keep the treaty between both sides, protecting their people from the threat of war. The royal blood is the key to peace, and ferociously protected. The penalties for any landsman who tries to breed with a deeps man are severe; the fate of any 'bastard' child, born of such an illegitimate union, is terrible.

"But the royal house of England is staggering, collapsing under the weight of centuries of inbreeding. Anne prays for guidance, a way into the future without hatred or bloodshed. Henry holds with fierce certainty that only the strong survive. But if either of them is to outlive the coming conflict, they may need more deeps man faith alone..."


Much as Guy Gavriel Kay has famously riffed on places and periods from the annals of human history, embellishing the past as we know it with such tropes of fantasy as to create rich and rewarding near-as-damnit realities to let loose his characters in, for her second trick after Bareback, award-nominated author Kit Whitfield takes 16th century Europe as the backdrop for a narrative that is, in its sombre, seditious way, as powerful as the very best of Kay's backlist. In Great Waters is a glorious triumph of imagination; an involving and emotional chronicle of a world not so very different from our own.

What sets Whitfield's Europe apart from that we might learn of in textbooks and on the History Channel is the existence of deepsmen, which is to say mermaids, mermen, a race of aquatic beings who have made their home in the ocean. In Great Waters has it that after an insurgence in Venice, "the deepsmen of the sea were... no longer sailors' yarns, but an engaged force with loyalties of their own." Aghast, the people - landsmen, if we are to succumb to Whitfield's terminology - entered into a partnership with their underwater equivalents whereby the blood of the deepsmen now courses through the veins of Europe's royal houses. But hundreds of years have passed since Angelica rose from the canals to turn landlocked humanity on its head; she is but a legend, now, set against the harsh reality of Kings and Queens inbred to preserve her bloodline.

Edward rules in England, but he grows weak, and when his thoroughbred heir perishes, the country looks set to inherit an horrendously deformed second son as their monarch. Seeking to preserve their grasp on the great nation, the royal family have taken to burning those half-caste children born of unions between deepmen and landsmen. But secreted away in an estate on the outskirts of London, one has survived, and horrfied by the treatment of such unfortunate offspring as Henry, the timid granddaughter of King Edward seeks to alter the itinerary of history again.

Anne and Henry; Henry and Anne. Whitfield treats us to a book in the company of each, heavyset with dense information dumps and gradual character-building, before the worlds of each - the broken court of the ailing King Edward and the training ground Henry's landsman saviour has set for him - come together with a defeaning crash and their narratives intertwine. They are a fascinating, engaging pair: different sides of the selfsame coin in their ways. Anne has been born and raised on land but is of deepsmen breeding; Henry, meanwhile, is utterly of the sea, but removed from it struggles to find his land-legs. Anne is God-fearing, obtuse and fiercely intelligent; Henry, however, is blunt, brutish, illiterate and adamant in his Godlessness. Anne grapples with huge issues such as war, politics, monarchy and loyalty while the outcast deepsman faces down only clothes, and latterly, a painting.

In Great Waters, for all its grandiose manouvering and dodgy politicking, is a remarkably personal narrative, and though some will wish Whitfield had painted her wonderful world with more depth and texture, its greatest function is as a backdrop for the lives of these two characters - but they are such lives, fraught so soon with hardship and tragedy, sin and decision. It can be hard, in fact, to reconcile the awful things Henry and Anne must face down with their youth; even at the end of In Great Waters, Anne - whored, married, murderer - is only 14 years young. Such insight it difficult to bear, at times, but bear it you must, for the journey, across land and sea alike, is often spectacular.

As Bareback before it, In Great Waters showcases the effortless elegance of Whitfield as a wordsmith, and while her world would have perhaps resonated more with the addition of a third, less isolated perspective, that is not the focus of her nonetheless superlative second novel. Tight and restrained, imtimate and unadorned, In Great Waters succeeds in spades as a powerful and personal tale of the inhuman told with touching humanity.


In Great Waters
by Kit Whitfield
March 2010, Vintage

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