In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Reviewed by T. S. Miller
05 March 2010
Kit Whitfield's second novel follows on the heels of her well-received dystopian/detective fantasy Benighted (Bareback in the U.K.), and with In Great Waters we get another congenial generic mixture, an alternate history fantasy set in a world where no enterprising Norman ever crossed the English Channel, where late medieval/Renaissance court politics are more complex than ever, where all bastards are systematically exterminated at public burnings—and all because of mermaids. But you won't find the M-word anywhere in the novel, or many of its usual associations: indeed, the scenes in which Whitfield's distinctly unromanticized "deepsmen" figure consist largely of tooth-and-fin struggles for survival in a vast and unforgiving ocean. What Whitfield remains most interested in, however, is the intersection between this fantastic undersea world and the more familiar territory of our own past. In her alternate timeline, the sudden intrusion of the deepsmen into "landsmen" affairs in ninth century Venice irrevocably altered global politics, and the monarchies of every coastal state in Europe quickly became the exclusive possession of hybrids with the ability to speak the language of the deepsmen and mediate between the two worlds. The plot is driven by the monopoly on hybridity that the collection of royal families—or, more properly, the royal family—seeks to maintain several centuries later, as Henry, a "bastard" hybrid and would-be usurper of the English throne, pursues the quest for which he was groomed by grey eminences with their own motives.
I'll start off by saying that, while Whitfield is clearly working with a rich premise here, the one puzzling paradox of this novel—and, for some, likely the biggest problem they will find with it—involves the way in which neither the worldbuilding nor the plotting is the narrative's strongest point. As a tale of courtly intrigue, In Great Waters is fairly routine, and, as an extrapolative alternate history of a self-consistent fantasy world, at times disconcertingly implausible. For instance, the deepsmen possess a woefully subhuman intelligence that would seem to belie the considerable power and influence Whitfield ascribes to them: barely able to hold their own against marauding dolphin pods, the deepsmen haven't learned how to open crab shells for the meat or use the most rudimentary of tools, but somehow remain cunning enough to destroy bridges, ships, even entire fleets, inexplicably achieving the absolute naval supremacy that we might expect from nothing short of German wolf packs dropped into this early Age of Sail. I could adduce other examples, but this sort of implausibility is likely to prove the most problematic for the more skeptical reader, since both the novel's backstory and main plot depend on us taking Whitfield at her word that a world with this kind of deepsman in it would be this way, both politically and militarily. If, however, Whitfield's world of deepsmen and deepsmen-human hybrids works imperfectly on the larger historical and sociopolitical levels, her presentation of individual members of these alien races is nevertheless truly remarkable. Henry and Anne, the novel's two central characters, are both hybrids between landsmen and deepsmen, and, as the latter are already composite beings, their narratives ceaselessly confront a compounded hybridity that arguably becomes the central preoccupation of the novel. As Niall Harrison puts it, the novel is "a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds"; I would put added emphasis on the "personal." Whenever Whitfield steps back in this novel, she's at her weakest, but Henry's world and Anne's world I can believe in.
We begin with Henry. After enduring a few years of abuse and undernourishment among his deepsman tribe, the hapless young half-breed is abandoned on shore by his mother, where he soon learns—you guessed it—that he doesn't belong in either world. Yet Whitfield handles Henry's initial sense of displacement and estrangement superbly: even as he ages, his very patterns of thought tend to flow back towards the sea, and, while the metaphors that shape his perceptions are not quite alien to us, they are metaphors none of us landsmen would naturally think to use. For example, his first thoughts on land run in "a current of hurt and confusion that he could not swim against" (p. 15); nor can he bear to wear clothing, that tangle of seaweed threatening to drown him; and, most powerfully, he finds himself looking out of his high window with a vertiginous but almost irresistible longing to swim out of it. While air, like water, remains a fluid medium, Henry's conception of dimensionality has been altered forever, possibly creating a worse prison than the physical confinement into which his captors have placed him. Throughout this first section of the novel, Henry's state of mind repeatedly recalls that famous line from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness—"The earth seemed unearthly"—and so Henry's world, which must still be the world, nevertheless seems unbearably unworldly.
In a sense, Henry's entire experience on land consists of a struggle to understand that experience, to reconcile himself with himself, or to reconcile the two worlds to which he does not belong to the one he will have to create for himself. Although Henry is not so much a fish out of water as some kind of lusus naturae that was never comfortable underwater either, his resistance to his new environment is understandable. Not only must Henry rely on different senses—at first he has difficulty focusing his eyes on objects farther than a few feet away—but he must adapt himself to novel modes of thought and communication. Indeed, Henry's rejection of the human world is, from the start, implicated in a rejection of both the strictures and deceptions inherent in landsman language. We first witness Henry's animosity towards language when Allard, the man who first takes him in, attempts to teach him how to ask for the sticks hybrids require to walk: "Henry was not about to beg for the staff if it meant accepting the sounds" (p. 26). Henry eventually accepts the English language (but never Latin) as an unpleasant necessity, but the almost tragic irony of his great desire and singular motivation—namely, to become king—is that he does not especially desire the landsman world or anything about it; in fact, even after Henry has befriended a handful of humans and learned much about their culture, he still wants nothing to do with landsmen except wield power over them.
In this respect, Henry proves very different from Anne, whose perspective dominates the second part of the novel. Although the princess Anne is also a hybrid, she was raised among landsmen from birth, in effect as a landsman. Accordingly, in contrast to the way in which Henry's mind usually works, the figures that frame Anne's thoughts during those frightening moments when she must enter the sea to commune with the deepsmen derive from the world above: "the [deepsman] voices were tolling out all around them, louder than a cathedral organ" (p. 76). Yet the two characters are not mirror-images of one another, and Anne more often tends to think in intertidal metaphors, as it were, more keenly aware than Henry of what happens when the realms of land and sea collide. In a jewel-encrusted gown, for instance, Anne feels like the "barnacled hull" of a ship (p. 80), and feels that "[a] schism between the Church and the Crown would have split the country open like a beached seal corpse" (p. 98). In this respect, Anne's mind can seem less foreign to us, or at least less unexpected: unlike Henry, she embraces the landsman religion with fervor, but the epithet of the Virgin she finds most comforting remains "Stella Maris" (p. 141). Moreover, Anne always feels a quiet longing for the sea, for escape, that may or may not have much to do with her deepsman DNA: "Longing gripped her, a deep longing that they could all shed their clothes and jewels and slip into the water together, slip out to sea" (p. 79). We could trace this impulse in the fantasy tradition through, say, Joanna Newsom's lyric narrative "Colleen," and then back to the many fairytales about undines, selkies, and other water-brides. Indeed, Anne's dilemma throughout the novel is very like the dilemma of the imprisoned water-bride, caught between two worlds: as a legitimate hybrid, she has no choice but to be a princess, a queen, and a certain current of fatalism runs throughout the narrative.
Of course, Anne and Henry must be fated to meet, and the tenor of their first encounters is especially illustrative of the more moving implications of their hybrid status. We might presume that Henry, a stranger in a strange land who has never in his life spoken to another hybrid like himself, would rejoice upon meeting Anne, but instead her presence engenders feelings of extreme antipathy, even tempting him to violence. Curiously, it is precisely Anne's similarity to himself that so angers and repulses him: "for her to speak this private language was an outrage that made him grip his hands on the floor" (p. 242). We again see Whitfield's masterful irony here: the two characters we expect to be most similar because of their shared hybrid identity are not only among the most different from one another, but at first openly hostile. In retrospect, one of the most arresting features of the novel is that, in Henry and Anne's world, despite the entrenched position of hybrids in the leadership of almost all major European powers, there is not even a word for the hybrids as a discrete group: I have myself consistently used the term "hybrid" strictly for convenience, and that word in fact never appears in the novel. In this same vein, one of Allard's early remarks to Henry is telling: "'There is a word for boys like you,' Allard said. 'Bastard. Can you say it?' The idea of there being a word for him, not just a random name but a useful description caught Henry's attention" (p. 51). Unfortunately, there is no better word than "bastard" to fulfill Henry's need for a group identity: as a hybrid, one belongs to one of two categories, "royal" or "bastard," with nothing in between and no superclass uniting them. One wonders if the absence of such a word might be a smooth propaganda move on the part of the ruling class of hybrids: the natural word for hybrid is only "king," and the natural fate of "bastards" is death.
As one can easily see, the occasional implausibilities of Whitfield's construction of international relations do not by any means signal a lack of insight on these issues generally, and such moments of keen insight as her emphasis on the power of language as tool of political, social, and cultural manipulation helped me overcome some of the novel's less palatable elements. In fact, by the time we make it to the middle of the novel, what had appeared to be but flimsy backstory—the tale of Angelica, the first hybrid liaison queen—becomes less flimsy to the extent that we decide that the hybrids themselves may indeed have a flimsy pretext for ruling. One could argue, based on Henry's interpretation of the Angelica myth (pp. 214-7), that in part the landsmen may have indeed been duped into fearing the deepsmen as much as they do: the landsmen do not realize that the hybrids should be their real enemies, not their masters, because only the hybrids have the power to make the deepsmen more than fish. What Whitfield doesn't make explicit even in this compelling section is the real horror of how the hybrids in power also wage a perpetual and self-destructive campaign against their own people, so to speak—that is, the people with no name, the hybrids. Indeed, the regnant Machiavellian hybrids of In Great Waters appear to lead wretched existences for the most part, killing others of their kind recklessly and delighting in no one's company. On the path to kingship, even Henry is self-assured but self-hating, hating every part of himself: the landsmen for their abstractions, the deepsmen for their brute stupidity, and Anne for her unconscionable sin of undermining his own uniqueness. Although he and Anne eventually find some common ground, their profound alienation persists, and Henry, again, feels he cannot ever turn back: "he had learned speech and could not go back, and the time in that room was something he did not intend to return to" (p. 212). Henry has left the sea; Henry has learned the language of the enemy; and in consequence Henry is left ever after with a desire to eat tongues, to destroy the organ of that language, to return to an inarticulable time that never existed and never could exist.
Finally, speaking of language, Whitfield's own prose is worth remaking upon. The writing is solid throughout, but I was often caught off-guard by particularly elegant, almost lapidary turns of phrase, such as when Henry views the bottom of a ship "splitting the wind-spackled ceiling" (p. 6), or when Anne's uncle, the deformed imbecile king, is described as having "cankered in the muddied waters of his mother's womb" (p. 278). (I don't know, maybe it's just the medievalist in me that makes me a sucker for alliteration, consonance, and the like.) There's some occasional but undeniable clunkiness in Whitfield's plotting and exposition, but her prose is often beautiful without ever becoming overwrought. And, yes, those moments when our credulity may be strained are not necessarily ignorable, but how important the weaknesses of Whitfield's "macrocosmic" world are to one's overall appreciation of the novel will likely vary from reader to reader. I'll admit I found myself pulled both ways throughout, but the novel was more than saved for me because of Whitfield's masterful way of dramatizing and communicating various registers of strangeness, alienation, and subjectivity. In the end, even if you find its world difficult to swallow, In Great Waters confirms that Whitfield is a writer to keep watching.