Sometimes, it's just the wrong book.
I really wanted to love In Great Waters. All the omens were good: Whitfield is a talented writer. She's an alumna of the University of East Anglia's renowned M.A. in Creative Writing. Her first novel, Bareback (Benighted in America), gathered critical acclaim from all sorts of places despite being fantasy (and werewolf fantasy at that). And then, the advance information for In Great Waters was so alluring. A court at war with itself, an ancient pact with creatures from the sea, a royal dynasty with mixed blood and odd abilities. A pretender. Religious conflict. Complex politics and the hint of a detailed and richly textured background. It all added up to a book I anticipated keenly.
And there is much that is good within it. A young boy—neither exactly human nor one of the deepsmen who inhabit the sea—is abandoned by his deepsman mother on a shore, where he is found by a man who captures him, names him Henry, educates him in human ways and places him at the centre of a plot to usurp the throne of England. Hundreds of years previously, the first known human-deepsman hybrid had walked out of the waters and instituted a pact to keep the peace between land and sea dwellers, placing herself and her hybrid descendants on all the thrones of Europe save one. Now, as the English royal family falls prey to inbreeding and ambition, the young Princess Anne must find a way to save herself and her country from the plots and dangers that surround her. This is an appealing and engaging set-up, and in Anne and Henry Whitfield provides us with two strong and rounded protagonists. The problem is that this is not enough. There is an elephant in the room—in the pages: the world-building just does not work. Not for me, anyway.
The entire motive force of the plot—all the tension, all the danger, all the reader investment—hinges on the plausibility of the world Whitfield offers us. We are in a world in which communication by sea and by major waterways is vital to survival. Back in the ninth century, the deepsmen invaded Venice and disrupted its commerce, transport and infrastructure so severely that the state was on the brink of collapse. The Venetians responded by hounding and slaughtering the deepsmen, but no stability could be achieved until Angelica created her pact. The humans would refrain from hunting and killing the deepsmen; in return, the deepsmen would leave shipping alone. Only hybrids can maintain this pact, as only they can operate both on land and on sea: one by one the royal lines of Europe marry into Angelica's and hybridism becomes the qualification for royalty. Each new ruler must remake their country's pact with the local deepsmen in order to maintain shipping and communication for one side and survival for the other. So far so good: it's an interesting enough idea. The problem is in the execution. Whitfield simply assumes hundreds of years of what amounts to political stagnation: the royal lines go unchallenged and control access to creating hybrids. No-one's ambitions change, no-one invents any new artefact or skill to make the pact unnecessary. No-one even seems to consider a different political model (there is a brief reference to Switzerland as the sole country with wholly human leaders, which is due to its land-locked status. No-one elsewhere in this alternate Europe seems to have thought about experimenting with this). The implication is that the threat of the deepsmen is so great that, even after hundreds of years—it isn't clear exactly how many—everyone is still convinced that only the status quo can save them. Yet as Whitfield presents them, the deepsmen are only semi-intelligent, interested in sex and food and their hunting territories, little else. They have no over-arching political frameworks—rather, the tribes are mutually suspicious and hostile. Each land-based ruler deals only with the tribe off their own coasts. On land, the rulers are weak and have poor mobility due to their deformed limbs. In the water, they are weak due to relative small size and lack of speed. The dealings Anne and her mother have with deepsmen make it clear how dangerous the latter are and how apparently uninterested in their hybrid relatives. On land, Anne and her family are equally vulnerable to scheming courtiers. Even Henry—stronger due to his fresh blood—is hampered by poor mobility, by his size and by the limitations of his understanding. Whitfield provides some elements to emphasise the importance of water routes to her world—the English lords, for instance, all have titles referring to their water holdings rather than land ones—the earl of Tay, the earl of Tamar, the earl of Ouse. Surnames reflect the same pattern—Shingleton, Claybrook, Westlake. But these touches are superficial. She does not convince me, at least, of the economics underpinning this: there is little reference to international trade, to sea produce, to anything that supports the apparent importance of the seas. There are seemingly no great navies sailing to conquer new lands accompanied by their allied deepsman. The importance is missing. And then, coastlines are long, yet we meet only one deepsman tribe for each country, or so it seems. Is the English Channel the only significant waterway here (save for the Venetian canals)? Given the declining health of the European royal hybrids, why has the rule of law not broken down and ambitious men set out to breed their own hybrid children—or to replace them altogether with human leaders and to renew their attacks on the fragmented tribes of deepsmen?
There are other problems, too. Whitfield writes lively dialogue and engaging inner monologue but she shies away from action. Again and again, when there is a chance of confrontation, an easier way is presented to the characters. (And, frankly, in Henry's climactic confrontation with the deepsmen, she cheats.) She devotes considerable space to the issue of religion—Anne believes, Henry doesn't—and to the implications of a non-Christian king. And yet again, in the end she sidesteps. In Henry she presents us with a splendid monster but she never quite convinced me, at least, that he merited the loyalty the plot requires him to inspire.
There are some very strong elements. The story covers the education and upbringing of both Anne and Henry, and this is interesting and well-handled.
Anne in particular is an engaging character, and her struggle with her faith, her fear and her jealousies are convincing. The contrast between the two and the barbed-wire tension when they must ally is terrific. The way their different skills combine to save them is intelligent and satisfying. There are some excellent set-pieces in the form of council meetings and philosophical discussions. As a coming of age story, In Great Waters is a clear success. It's an interesting book, a smoothly written and readable book that has kept me thinking long after I finished it. It's very likely that other readers will like it more than I did. I am, for my sins, a mediaeval historian, and problems with historical culture trip me. It's more alternate history and less fantasy than I had hoped and that may be part of my difficulty.
Certainly, I'd read more by Whitfield. In Great Waters is a good book in many ways, but for me anyway, it's also an heroic failure.
Sometimes, you're just the wrong reader.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (Daw, 2009), and is the reviews editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early middle ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.