In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

 Published by Jonathan Cape
March 5th 2009
Hardcover – 340pages
ISBN: 978-0224079242

After the much deserved success of her first novel, Bareback (published in the US as Benighted), Kit Whitfield could have been forgiven for jumping straight back into that compelling world. But contrary to the current fantasy trend of extended-series, the author has instead produced another standalone gem in the shape of In Great Waters.

The premise of In Great Waters is every bit as interesting as Bareback’s. Set in an alternative Middle Ages, the royal houses of Europe have become dependent on a new type of warrior to defend their borders, deepsmen. These people of the seas can stop navies, guard shorelines, invade anywhere that has a coast and have become central to the machinations of the ruling powers. So dependent, in fact, that hybrid kings and queens now sit on many thrones, forging alliances between the people of land and sea. The royal blood of the original deepsmen queen, Angelica of Venice, and her progeny is the key to peace and ferociously guarded. Into this strange yet familiar setting we are introduced to the struggling English royalty, collapsing under the weight of centuries of inbreeding, and to two characters in particular.

What is so immediately compelling about Whitfield’s writing is her ability to convey strangeness in a way that makes it understandable yet no less strange. The beginning, and indeed much of this novel proves the point as we see the world through the eyes of the young deepsman, Whistle and the English princess, Anne. The risk in only having two characters tell the tale is offset by their unique perspectives and the enjoyment the reader gains from trying to put together the pieces from what the two characters experience.

Whistle is a bastard, the product of a human-deepsman mating, illegal by the laws of the land and doomed to a terrible fate, burnt at the pyre, if discovered. Anne is the second daughter of William Prince of England, heir to the throne and husband to the harsh Magyar princess Erzebet. Their places in life are as far removed from one another as could be. Yet the weakness of the English royalty, William’s brother Philip is an over-grown idiot and the only other royal son, makes many fear England is ripe for invasion. And their troubles have only just begun.

Unlike many fantasy works, In Great Waters has no familiar genre grounding for the reader, every chapter, every event as it comes is interesting because of this lack of familiarity. You can never quite be sure where the story is going to take us or how, locked in these two young bodies as the whirlwind of events plays out around them. Despite this constant edge of intrigue Whitfield does a good job of slowly introducing the state of England and Europe around the story, supplying information in a steady drip that never falls into the trap of overloading the reader with paragraphs of exposition. If anything, for the first half of the novel at least, the reader will be itching to know more as the cleverly structured limitations of the two young protagonists withhold the bigger picture from us. It is a strongly woven plot from a compelling viewpoint.

Which is not to say there aren’t a few minor grumbles. Some of Whitfield’s description is awkward, not to any significant degree but one major scene took me a few re-reads to piece together what was happening. The focus on Anne and Whistle’s perspective at times leaves the supporting cast a little flat and two-dimensional, you never really get the full measure of Robert Claybrook or Francis Shingleton for example. Also the tightness of the story, based in only a few locales, fails to give the world overall a feeling of depth and the novel is perhaps a bit too enclosed as a result.

Although the ending is a little stilted and convenient, it’s also fitting and you can’t help but cheer on these two odd characters. With any number of reasons why this novel could have failed, many inherent to the type and style of story chosen, this is a highly crafted piece worthy of a far more experienced writer. For only the author’s second novel all credit must doubly go to Kit Whitfield, In Great Waters is a thoroughly different yet no less enjoyable story, another cracking yarn.

Owen Jones © 2009

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