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In Great Waters cover

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.



Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009, winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honor List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of five books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.
4 comments on “In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield”

I've been a Whitfield fan since stumbling on her first book, and ordered this one from Amazon.uk (I live in Arkansas) because I wasn't waiting for it to appear over here. I agree with most of what you're saying here, including how readable the book is. But it felt truncated to me, as if maybe it should have been three books. Whitfield builds into an intriguing situation, and then, abruptly, unconvincingly, ends it.

the royal lines go unchallenged and control access to creating hybrids
The stagnation is part of Whitfield's point. The book itself is all about just such a challenge and there is no reason to think there haven't been other challenges, both in England and the rest of the continent.
The implication is that the threat of the deepsmen is so great
I don't think so. It is not that the deepsmen pose a threat, it is that without them nations are vulnerable; the English aren't scared of the deepsmen, they are scared of the French.
I have to say, I am glad it wasn't the first volume of a trilogy. It is such a treat to read a speculative fiction novel that is narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow.

Kari Sperring

The fear of the French is riven through with a fear of the deepsmen that the French control. And she doesn't, for me, make a strong case for that. She tells and tells and tells, but there is no showing.
And while stagnation is part of the plot, it is not well-enough drawn to convince me. A line that flawed does not survive without a much stronger underpinning, historically, and certainly not over so wide an area. Her explanations for why it has are superficial -- oh, it's illegal to breed with deepswomen. How is that enforced, exactly? It takes a lot more than a report and a burning. You have to have drive the belief deep into the social fabric, and that sense is not there in the book. The royal lines are far too vulnerable: to convince, she needed to give them far more social, military and political resonance historically, even if it's fading. Any book is open to multiple readings, certainly, but for me, alas, it does not work.

Interesting review. I agree with you that Whitfield fudges the final confrontation somewhat, and share (some of) your scepticism about royal dynasties ruling for 500 years or whatever. I also thought the world felt more 16th- than 14th-century. But:
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
This is what is happening during the book, though, isn't it? We don't see enough of the rest of Europe, or of England's history, to be able to judge one way or the other on how often (or how successfully) this has happened in the past/elsewhere, but I'd be willing to bet things haven't been nearly as uninterrupted as the royal family tries to make out.
The contrast between the popular mythology of Angelica's deeds, and what we can piece together of the truth as the mythology is undercut during the story, leads me to suspect that propaganda/tradition is one thing that the various royal lines have engaged in quite a bit of. It's a fantasy Divine Right of Kings, and I, at least, have no trouble in believing in its enduring power - even if only as a vague superstition - for most of the dynasty's subjects at most times. (And here I disagree with you: I *did* get a sense of this from the book - e.g. that public burnings hammer home the point pretty effectively.) Those for whom it lacks power being, of course, rebels such as those who raise Henry.
Fear or otherwise of coastal deepsmen may fall into this category: do the royals go out to placate the local tribe because they fear and need them, or because it is traditional ritual? I'm inclined to think a little of both. Again, it is hard to judge how much of a threat deepsmen may actually be to a landed power that doesn't have a halfbreed royal to send out to them, because we don't see the deepsmen when they're out-and-out hostile.
it's illegal to breed with deepswomen. How is that enforced, exactly?
Much like the execution of bastards is enforced, I imagine (or most law enforcement in a pre-modern world) - when rumour gets out, or would-be plots are betrayed, agents are sent out and action is taken. I think we see this at the start of the book - Henry/Whistle is kept well away from passing ships. I assumed at first that it was because the deepsmen were ashamed of his deformity, but later on I realised that it must be because a halfbreed would undoubtedly be talked about by the sailors when they were back on land, and trouble would ensue. Haphazard, but that's medieval government for you.
In retrospect, I also wonder if Henry's story doesn't very closely parallels Angelica's (real) story - i.e., Henry being left on land where a would-be rebel will happen across him is not nearly as accidental as it first appears.

 

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