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June 10th, 2010

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11:56 am - In Great Waters
I just read In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield. It's an historical fantasy, set in the late Middle Ages (I'm thinking the 15th century) in a world where a sub-species of human beings live in the oceans. These 'deepsmen' have greater lung capacity, a more robust physiognomy, and legs fused into a muscular 'tail'. They are physically powerful but have a very limited culture and language. Not clear if they are of lower intelligence or just limited by their environment.

Deepsmen and Landsmen can 'interbreed' (you will forgive me using a term like this, but in this universe it makes sense, as it does not when talking about so-called race in our universe). In the 10th century a family of hybrids, who are both intelligent and robust, took over rulership of Venice, and now all the royal families of Europe are descended from this mixed lineage, controlling both land and sea. The royal family ruthlessly destroys any other hybrid children who are born, as potential usurpers.

The story begins with a hybrid child living in the ocean and finding it hard to survive. The deepsmen have a very simple animal-like social order, with little place for a child who can't swim fast. His mother abandons him on the beach, and he is taken in by an aristocratic family who plan to use him as a pretender to the English crown.

The overall tone is very realistic and grounded. It niggled a wee bit with me that if she'd just tweaked the biology a little, it would have been much more scientifically plausible, but I don't mind suspending disbelief. The feeling of Mediaeval politics and religion is very authentic, and the contrasting feeling of the two worlds, land and sea, is beautifully conveyed. The story reminded me of Wolf Hall. It would be hard to think of a better example of an historical fantasy AU, so if you like that kind of thing, this is a very good example.

Most interesting to me was the personality of the mixed-species hybrid people. They are a little like the ancient-breed hero of 'Black Man', or the old SF tradition of Slans. They stand a little outside of the social ease of either sub-species of humans, and they find religion and morality problematic in various ways. They are vividly drawn, plausible, and likeable. In fact the more I think about it, this is definitely the long standing SF trope coming out, to appeal to the common feeling of both competence and outsiderness, and very well done in its type.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2010 12:22 pm (UTC)
Huzzah! Another convert. :-)
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
Indeed. Do you think it is a flaw that the biology is impossible, when with some adjustments it could have been more plausible? I would have preferred that aspect to be tidied up a bit, to balance the historical plausibility, but that's a minor issue.
[User Picture]
Date:June 11th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
The biology didn't bother me too much - as you say, it makes most sense to read the novel as a fantasy. You mention historical plausibility, but again I'm not sure that's what the book is about - I think it was buymeaclue who wrote at some length about the Boleyn echoes in the novel's events and characters, but by the same token the historical period depicted in the book does not match exactly with any particular moment in our own past. It's a novel which asks to be judged on its own terms, I think.

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