I’ve never read anything by Frances Hardinge before, though I have friends who love her, so when Deeplight showed up at my door unannounced, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m glad I went into this without much information, though, because it’s a seriously strange and weirdly beautiful book that I can’t liken to anything else I’ve read…
Book: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Macmillan. All opinions my own.
Content warning: Body horror.
I don’t usually do this for posts that aren’t on blog tours, but I think I’m going to give you the official blurb rather than try to explain it myself, because there’s a lot going on:
For centuries the gods of the Undersea ruled the islands of the Myriad through awe and terror: they were very real, and very dangerous. Sacrifices were hurled into the waters to appease them, and every boat was painted with pleading eyes to entreat their mercy. They were served, feared and adored. Then, thirty years ago, the gods rose up in madness and tore each other apart.
Now, none remain. The islands have recovered and the people have patched their battered ships and moved on.
On one of these islands live Hark and his best friend Jelt. To them, the gods are nothing but a collection of valuable scraps to be scavenged from the ocean and sold.
But now something is pulsing beneath the waves, calling to someone brave enough to retrieve it.
Deeplight straddles the line between MG and YA, I think. It’s got the feel of a middle grade adventure, with a focus on friendship and finding oneself, but the depth and philosophy of something older. It’s fantasy, but with a Weird, Lovecraftian bent, and it occasionally dips into the realms of horror (I found some of the body horror a bit grim!). The adventure and theology and weird science and coming-of-age elements feel like they should be too much for the book to handle, but they’re blended seamlessly into a tale with so much depth and nuance that it feels utterly real.
When we first meet Hark, he’s something of a cheeky chappy, performing small cons on gullible foreigners who are tempted to buy godware (literally bits of the old gods salvaged from the sea). There are hints that his life has been hard, but he’s still very kind and easygoing, which made it hard for me to warm to his ‘best friend’ Jelt, who is a classic manipulator and emotional abuser. It’s easy to see why Hark clings to Jelt out of a sense of shared background and loyalty, but for me as an adult with experience of people like that, I never once got the sense that Jelt was someone to be liked, which made reading the first parts of the book an interesting experience. Watching Hark develop over the story was wonderful – he’s a really strong character. He has to make a lot of difficult decisions, and I really felt for him.
The world-building here is phenomenal. There’s very much a sense of real culture in the Myriad, and as more of the story is unveiled we learn more and more about what happened to the gods, we can see how that has affected the people of the islands. The depictions of the old gods are so interesting! I love that their very existence is ambiguous, since they are gone, and the younger generations of the islanders have a fascinating mix of apathy and respect towards them; they are legends in one sense, and junk in another. I wasn’t expecting such an in-depth look at the nature of worship, but I was very impressed.
I also loved the easy way in which deafness was built into the world; in a culture that values diving (particularly in a sea that actively plays tricks on you), there is a large proportion of people who have tinnitus, or other diving-related deafness. Sign-language is common, and Hark uses it throughout to communicate with others; it’s casually mentioned that accommodations are made as a matter of course, such as the first row of public gatherings being automatically left as for the deaf so that they are able to see the lips of the speakers. There is a major character who is deaf, and her ability to communicate is never compromised; other characters check whether she is more comfortable lip-reading or using sign-language as a matter of course. It’s simple, but effectively done. To a certain extent, other disabilities are treated similarly as well, though they don’t get much focus. Spending too much time in the Undersea can cause your body to mutate, and those Marked like this are similarly afforded respect and care.
The book is slow to begin with, but not in a bad way. It’s a book about the power of stories and how they can warp the truth, so Hark has a lot of information-gathering to do. I don’t use slow as a criticism exactly, simply to contrast it with the last quarter or so of the book, where the action ramps up and things become a race against time. It could have been slimmed down and sped up, yes, but it would have lost so much of its depth and texture that it would have been a horrible shame; there’s an entire world in this book, and it needs time to unfurl.
I think this book is brilliantly written, and a fantastic read, but something is making me hover between four and five stars. I think it might be that the plot has all this depth and gorgeous exploration of morals and religion and power, but the characters fall a tiny bit short? The bad guys are slightly too moustache-twirling and Hark slightly too good, and I would have liked a little bit more moral greyness. I wonder if this comes from the tension between the younger and older aspects of the book: the world and plot would work in an adult novel, but the characters are just a tiny bit too simple for that? It’s not something I noticed while reading, but while thinking about the book afterwards. I still think that Deeplight is brilliant, so I think it genuinely calls for a four and a half cat rating!