Some writers just blow you away.
The depth of their world-building, the vividness and humanity of their characters, the beauty of their language, the thoughtfulness – the philosophy – of their concept.
Hardinge is definitely one of these writers.
I was a little concerned picking up Deeplight, however much I adore Hardinge because her most recent books from Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree to A Skinful of Shadows have been deeply rooted in historical settings – in English historical settings. How was she going to transition to full-blown high fantasy? Or perhaps transition is the wrong word. How was she going to manage her return to high fantasy?
The answer is with aplomb and mastery!
Deeplight is set in The Myriad, a collection of islands, in the middle of the ocean. A vast ocean. With continental landmasses on the edge of the map. But Hardinge, with characteristic control, doesn’t venture from the Myriad, nor even terribly far from the protagonists’ home island of Lady’s Crave or Sanctuary.
Yet there was so much there in and around those islands. The sea itself was almost a character in its own right here, alongside the human characters Hark and Jelt and Selphin. Dangerous, tantalising, tempting, rich.
And the big imaginative feat hear is to make the ocean dual layered: beneath the true sea lies a strange, maybe oily but somehow breathable Undersea:
They say that there is a dark realm of nightmares that lies beneath the true sea. When the Undersea arches its back, the upper sea is stirred into frenzy.
They say that the Undersea was the dwelling place of the gods.
They say many things of the Myriad and all of them are true.
The gods here are truly fantastic creations of nightmare – Lovecraftian in their horrors – and overshadow life in the Myriad, even though now dead. The Glass Cardinal, The Red Forlorn, Kalmaddoth, Dolor, The Hidden Lady… monstrous vast immortal creatures with snaking hair, nightmarish mouths, tendrils, crabs’ legs, chitin and hunger. For centuries they had ruled and been kept pacified by human sacrifice until, a generation before the story itself opens, they all turned on each other and tore each other apart. Their remains, legs, ichor, scales, fragments, retained strange properties and powers – potentially transforming and Marking those who came into contact with them – and were worth entire fortunes to the prospectors and investors sending submarines down to salvage this Godware.
Our main two main characters, however, Jelt and Hark, are far from this: children of Lady’s Crave, they are small time hustlers and crooks, not above a bit of thievery or con trick or vandalism. Hark, our protagonist, is the glibber of the two, weaving tales of wonder and make believe with just enough truth to be credible and useful to him in securing his marks. Jelt from the outset had a harder edge to him. And this friendship between the two, cemented years previously as they struggled to survive the orphanage, is at the heart of the novel.
And it is important. The toxicity of that relationship and Jelt’s coercive power within it, felt totally real and authentic – and impossibly powerfully and movingly explored in the simplest of language:
…he’ll want to eat me, explained Hark. It’s … been that kind of friendship for a while now.
The novel is exceptional: it explores the history of the gods and their reign and demise; it delves into the power and value of story and narrative, the human need to share and to pass on our stories; it explores ethics in the most profound way, which recalled Patrick Ness’s The Ask and the Answer, pondering whether it is ever possible to “justify an atrocity with mathematics”? And all this rolled up in a fascinating world with elements of steampunk and magic and myth, credible and human characters and a powerful gripping adventure plot.
A wonderfully humane read that constantly reminds us that, however much we might see people who
all looked like automata… But there were men underneath the suits, all with their own memories, hopes, mistakes…
On one small point, having a daughter who has a speech and language delay and began school last year reliant on sign language with spoken English as – essentially – her second language, Hardinge’s characters who were “sea-kissed”, who had lost their hearing as a result of their diving and pressures. To have large numbers of characters including one major character signing – and respected for their signing – was wonderful!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Macmillan Childrens’ Books
Date: 31st October 2019