In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

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In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An utterly odd premise for a book – royal historical fiction, part-enacted by mermaids and mermen, that carries its idea with all sincerity, but must only go down as a completely divisive read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099502661

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A lad called Henry is growing up pretty much the same as anyone in his situation might be. He is not appreciating his nurse; trying to ignore the language lessons being thrust at him; finding the whole environment he has found himself in bizarre; touching himself in inappropriate places. As familiar as all that might sound, Henry is not familiar to us – he is a young, imprisoned, merman.

In the 9th Century, Venice was helped out in a matter of military diplomacy by a mermaid and her tribe, and ever since then the royal families of Europe have been made up of people from the deepsmen bloodline. This raises problems with inbreeding, with the mix of human and mer blood causing mutations and other genetic mistakes. At an untold time in English history since then, we will be shown the effect this has on a young princess Anne, as she finds herself embroiled in sagas of English royalty, problems with royal inheritance, the French, and so on.

What we get then is a book that is equally shared between character study of a merman, of all things, and a historical fiction that offers a very recognisable if artificial instances of royal shenanigans.

The first side of that divide is very well done. The author has clearly got very well into the mind of a mer-creature, someone who has never seen buildings, a right angle, even never seen anything through air as opposed to water, bar the instances of them coming up for breath. Everything from the deepsman and his tribalism, his communication, his thoughts and his genitalia even, have all been worked into the book in a coherent, sensible and eye-opening fashion.

As for the other side of things, I have less to enthuse over. Historical fiction of this regard is not something I have ever willingly read, and nothing here inspired me to correct that. There was little wrong with what we had – the intrigue in and out of court, the familiarity it shared with problems of inappropriate people being in line to the throne, and wars with the French (who have an armada of allianced mer-creatures, as does England) are all done very well, but the question remains – why?

Is this some completely off-the-kilter kind of metaphor, where the royal blue blood of Europe has come from the Big Blue? I liked the alternative reality side of things – in this England Lords are named for the rivers of their region, and not the counties; royals are free to go down to the shore and enter the sea naked to have the best of both worlds, but the schizophrenic mix of elements in the book will surely raise more than a few eyebrows.

The book doesn't read like a fantasy, as odd as that may sound with its spread of characters. Still, those wanting more mer-folk in their general fiction might find the royal machinations a little too prolonged – looked at a little too closely, perhaps, and those finding this book shelved as historical fiction may well be scoffing at the idea of Henry and his kin.

I have to applaud this book as doing something completely unexpected, and the sincerity with which it looks at its fictional plot. For someone seeking something completely fresh and unheard of, this book will be right up their street. I think had I been more disposed to the royal saga as a genre I might have been one of them – it has little in the way of faults, rather, such an unexpected approach to fiction.

For that approach alone, we are grateful at the Bookbag for our review copy.

There is little to compare this book with, but it might find favour with fans of The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies.

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