(This review first appeared on StaticMultimedia.com on November 8, 2009)
What if Britannia ruled the waves, not because of a superior navy but because of its army of mermen under the sea? In Great Waters presents an alternate history where the royal bloodlines of Europe are a mixture of human and sea people. Think The Tudors meets The Little Mermaid and you’ll have a glimmering of what Kit Whitfield has done in her latest fantasy novel.
Whistle is a half-breed—half-human and half-deepsman—whose mother pushes him up onto the land to live when he is still a small child. He understands that he is different and can’t keep up with those who are full-blooded deepsman. He had already become a danger to his mother and an outcast in his tribe, but now he is faced with a bewildering new environment. Without help, he has little hope of surviving in the harsh, unfamiliar world of landsmen where the mere act of standing seems an impossible struggle for him. He is found and taken in by Allard, one of the strange landsmen, who begins to teach him the language, history and religion of the land. As with any type of feral child, his teacher has his hands full. Allard insists on calling the boy Henry, but Whistle doesn’t care for this strange new name that means nothing in his own language. He doesn’t like the way landsmen think they can name places or the way they hide their true forms under cumbersome fabrics. He resists becoming part of the landsmen’s world at every turn until he is handed a toy crown and learns the concept of becoming a king. Allard and another man, Robert Claybrook, tell him that all the kings and queens of England must be part deepsman and so one day he will be king. Henry takes comfort from that goal, but he doesn’t fully understand Claybrook’s schemes. Putting a bastard like Henry on the throne involves both treason and murder and, if the plan fails, all of them will be burned at the stake.
Whitfield’s meld of historical settings, political intrigue, and fantasy elements flow together like a strong current and carry the reader through to the story’s satisfying end. The advantages and disadvantages of deepsmen ruling Europe are plausibly explained and give a refreshing twist to what would otherwise be a plain historical fiction. This book is indeed historical fantasy that, like urban fantasy, has a story that would stand up even if all the fantasy elements were stripped away.
As with all truly good fantasy and science fiction, In Great Waters puts an alien face on human nature so that our faults and virtues can be explored with a fresh eye. The most intriguing debate brought into play is that of the politics of religion. Henry, while he is convinced to adapt to landsman manners, never converts to their beliefs. The fear that a pagan king could sit on a Christian throne is more dangerous to him than the fact that he is a bastard and usurper. Flip that issue around to what happens when world leaders impose personal religious beliefs on policy where a distinct separation of church and state is traditional and the issue becomes topical, controversial and, of course, very offensive to some—if the story involves only human beings. With mermen in the mix, it is less upsetting (and easier to dismiss by some), but hopefully still starts the reader’s mind turning consciously or subconsciously to that important debate.
With In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield has created an entertaining, memorable alternate reality and a springboard for intelligent debate on historical issues relevant to today’s world.