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In Great Waters
Kit Whitfield
Jonathan Cape, 342 pages

In Great Waters
Kit Whitfield
Kit Whitfield grew up in London. In her time, she has trained as a chef and a masseur, as well as working as a website editor, quote hunter, toy shop assistant and publisher.

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A review by Martin Lewis

Casting humans as the aliens is an old trick in science fiction but it is one Kit Whitfield has carried off particularly well with In Great Waters. The novel opens with its protagonist, Whistle, coming to realise his runtish position in his underwater tribe. He is small and weak and his tail is curiously bifurcated. Before long he is abandoned by his mother and forced up, out of the sea and into a new, terrifying world. It is an alien place; saltless and baffling, characterised by blinding colours, meat stink and impossibly thin air.

The child is rescued from the beach by a local land owner, Allard, who christens him (without his understanding) Henry and proceeds to teach him about the world. Our world. It is a slow process at first; just getting him to eat is difficult in the beginning, so contrary are their cultural instincts:

Whistle recognised the shape of it, but the flaking, loose-skinned texture convinced him that the fish was rotten, unsafe to eat, especially in this new environment where excrement stayed where it lay instead of washing away on the tides.
Eventually, these hurdles, and the far greater challenge of the language barrier, are overcome. Allard is able to teach him wider concepts: England, the divine right of kings and the difference between landsmen and deepsman.

It is a simple but rich concept. Whitfield posits two sapient species: the landsmen (humans) and the deepsmen (essentially mermaids, although in no way romanticised). Ever since the invasion of Venice in the Ninth Century, the kingdoms of Europe have been ruled by hybrids -- children of the union between landsmen and deepsmen -- able to command the loyalty of both the land and the sea. Only landlocked states like Switzerland can afford to ignore the rulers of the waves. The consequence of this is that bastard children like Henry pose a threat to the ruling monarchy and are summarily executed when discovered. As such he is somewhere between a prisoner and a prince.

Anne is Henry's mirror image, the child he could have been. She is a royal child, a hybrid like him but sanctioned and raised on the land. After reading Henry's story, we then read her parallel story. Following immediately afterwards it is perhaps not as excitingly fresh but it is every bit as engrossing. Whitfield's characterisation is rich and precise. Although Anne is closed and guarded where Henry is angry and open both are seeking to steer their lives through the straits of their circumstances and their interior worlds are fascinatingly realised.

Inevitably, after these exhilarating twin narratives of discovery and coming of age which take up the first third of the novel, it slows a little as it reshapes itself. Their stories start to intertwine and In Great Waters then becomes a battle for the throne. All their lives Henry and Anne have been pawns in the games of others but, as the book progresses, they find the agency they have been striving for and when they finally meet, they are able to effect revolutionary change. If that sounds rather too easy, it is because I have excised all the physical, psychological and philosophical barriers that Whitfield shows them overcoming in a way that never seems contrived but rather resonates with their internal strength.

In Great Waters is a delight to read, an elegant and contained work. People frequently profess to like clean, unadorned prose when often what they mean is prose that is charmlessly functional, prose that gets you from A to B without needing you to really to engage. Whitfield is the real deal, her prose is clear like a mountain lake; cool, beautiful, bracing, affording glimpses of great depths. I am extremely eager to see what she will do next.

Copyright © 2009 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, Strange Horizons and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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