English writer Kit Whitfield has done something amazing in her novel In Great Waters. She has given us an alternate history of medieval Europe where merfolk play a leading role – and as incredulous as it sounds, she does it well. Well enough, in fact, that I was able to let go of my knowledge of actual world history and thoroughly enjoy the story she wove.
From the first paragraph of In Great Waters, we are introduced to the mindset of a creature born of the sea. “Whistle” is not like the other children. He is weaker than the others in his tribe, and cannot swim as fast due to his bifurcated legs. He also cannot stay underwater as long as the others, needing to surface more often for air. Because he is different, he is picked on by the other children and ignored by the adults. He observes this underwater realm rather than actively participating in it, a stranger in his own world. But he manages to survive for five years and through his eyes we are indoctrinated into the existence of these sentient creatures who live and thrive underwater.
Around five years of age, however, Whistle’s life changes drastically; his mother forces him out of the sea and abandons him on a lonely beach. There he is found by a red faced man who takes the young boy into his home, but there is little sense of altruism in the gesture. The transition of the child who only knew the ocean to a world of enclosed spaces, sharp angles and drying, heavy air is a tour-de-force, and Whitfield does not sugar coat it. Whistle’s transformation into “Henry” is one of mistrust, fear and aggression – he struggles to interpret what is expected of him with an imperfect understanding, as virtually all the behaviors he learned with his tribe either have no bearing in this new world or elicit a far different response.
Because we learn about the existence of merfolk – or deepsmen, as they are known in this iteration of the world – through Whistle/Henry’s experiences, it makes it easier to accept the incredible leap of faith that Whitfield asks of us. For in this world, deepsmen do not only exist, they have greatly impacted the history of the world, specifically Eastern Europe.
During the Middle Ages, the deepsmen tribes determined that they had an advantage over land dwellers in that they could dominate the waters. By infiltrating the major city of Venice and taking control of the harbors and waterways, they were able to establish themselves as major players in that domain, forcing the Venetian city leaders to request aid from the French ruler Pepin to defeat the merfolk and return control of the canals.
The aristocracy of the besieged city offered conquest of Venice in return for this aid; however, they did not reckon with the will of the Venetian people, who burned for independence and did not desire to be put under French rule. The people of Venice rejected the course set by their leaders, and instead fought alongside the deepsmen, ultimately defeating Pepin’s navy. From this uprising came the union between a key rebellion leader and a wily, powerful oceanic female – Angelica – which began a mighty dynasty that quickly spread throughout Europe.
To quote the dust jacket cover of the paperback edition:
“The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed – and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deeps-woman becomes punishable by death. Any ‘bastard’ child must be destroyed.”
This is where Henry bisects the story – he is, indeed, one of the outlawed bastards, condemned by his very birth and, we find, a source for hope for some. For Angelica’s line, as powerful as it has been, is slipping. It has been tainted from within by paranoid inbreeding and attacked from without by forces looking for a foothold in power. The red-faced man who ‘discovers’ Henry is a minor English nobleman residing on an estate not too far from London. He hides the boy away in the hope that this outlaw child could be raised in secret for long enough to establish the political backing and even military clout to be able to “rise anew from the sea” and overthrow the current, weakened reigning family, rescuing England from her malignant fate.
Henry’s tale, however, is only half of Whitfield’s story. Interlaced with Henry’s growth and burgeoning understanding is the narrative of Anne, second daughter of the domineering and brilliant royal deepswoman Erzebet, who herself is related to the current English king and to the appalling simpleton, Philip, heir to the throne. As with Henry, Anne is a spectator to her own life being second to her far more beautiful and valuable sister, Mary, and living in a constant state of fear and worship of her fiercely driven mother.
Anne’s solution to the calamity and unforgiving structure of her privileged and very public life is to retreat into silence and smallness, which gives her the unfair label of being weak and simple herself. However, Anne possesses a keen intellect and an empathy that sees strength and honesty (or the opposite) despite appearances. Unlike Henry, however, Anne is content to be overlooked and unacknowledged; it is only when her life circumstances are dramatically and inextricably altered does she come into her own – somewhat unwillingly – as an understated leader of the country that she loves.
These stories are huge, and are not without weaknesses. Whitfield weaves a believable backdrop for her imaginative history; when experienced through one of the characters, it is tactile and acute. Beautifully realized details, such as how the royal deepsmen communicate with their sea bound cousins, or the protocol surrounding the use of canes in court, bring this alternate history into sharp focus. But ultimately there are too many leaps of faith that a reader must undertake in order for the storyline to move forward, and eventually keeping skepticism at bay is virtually impossible.
Yet for these weaknesses, Ms. Whitfield has woven an imaginative, plaintive, and powerful story that is both familiar and transcendental. Major themes such as the power of loyalty, the thin line separating heretics from patriots, and the amoral nature of protectionism are all recognizable, although uniquely focused through a slightly different lens. Yet isolation, loss and loneliness are treated in a deeply personal manner, allowing each of us to easily identify with creatures so different from ourselves.
In Great Waters may not serve everyone’s imagination as well as it did mine, but it definitely is worth a read by anyone who enjoys being challenged by stepping outside of their own, well perceived world. While I read this novel some time ago, I keep finding myself drawn back to the characters, their situations, and how they responded to their world even as I walk through mine. And this, I believe, is the true test of a good read – how it continues to linger with us, alive and provoking, even after the book itself gathers dust on the shelf. Good stuff, that… very good.