RogerBW's Blog

Deeplight, Frances Hardinge 30 April 2020

2019 fantasy. The islands of the Myriad used to have gods: great and implacable entities living in the sea, feared as much as worshipped. Thirty years ago, for no obvious reason, they turned on each other, fighting until they were all dead. But parts of their bodies make for useful salvage…

So among the traditional activities of smuggling and scavenging (and maybe even some legitimate fishing), there are brass-and-steel muscle-powered submarines, used to go diving into the sea that lies below the sea, looking for bits of dead gods to salvage. Not that Hark has anything to do with them; he's a dockside con-artist, making money where he can, and getting drawn into bigger schemes by his fellow-orphan Jelt.

That relationship is one of the central points of the book, and it's frustrating; it's immediately obvious that Jelt is no good for Hark, but he's a competent manipulator, and it takes Hark far too long to realise that words are just words. All right, Hark is about fifteen, and I can't say it's implausible exactly, but it irked me. (Particularly since he's a competent liar himself, so one would think he'd be able to recognise one.)

But that's just one story; there's another one about the corrupting effects of power, or perhaps it's more "watch out for who's offering you power and what they might plan to do with you"; and another of how people can be led into actions that they know are wrong by slow degrees until it's too late to back out without looking silly. And family and how it works… the action and procedural plot aren't badly served, but as in most good fiction what's important is the people.

Another blow from outside juddered the door, and there followed a roar of frustration.

Dr Vyne's scruples had room for improvement, but she did have a nice line in good, solid doors. Right now, this seemed like a highly redeeming quality.

The great thing is that these stories aren't rigidly allocated to particular characters; nobody's here to be The Obvious Bad Guy, though some of them are more misled than others, and Hark himself helps cause quite a bit of the trouble that he must eventually try to stop.

All right, I found Selphin a more interesting character than Hark; she's the youngest daughter of one of the most successful smugglers, deafened ("sea-kissed") in a salvaging accident, and now with a fear of the sea that rather stands in the way of her participation in the family trade. She gets occasional bits of the narrative, though it mostly stays with Hark, and I'd have liked to have read her book.

There are plenty of things I haven't mentioned (and Hardinge is still being poorly-served by her publishers, who appear to want to blow the main plot of the book in the blurb) and this book is a lovely wallow in a rich alternate world.

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