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In Great Waters [Paperback]

Kit Whitfield
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 27 2009
During a time of great upheaval, the citizens of Venice make a pact that will change the world. The landsmen of the city broker a treaty with a water-dwelling tribe of deepsmen, cementing the alliance through marriage. The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed–and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deepswoman becomes punishable by death. Any “bastard” child must be destroyed.

This is an Earth where the legends of the deep are true–where the people of the ocean are as real and as dangerous as the people of the land. This is the world of intrigue and betrayal that Kit Whitfield brings to life in an unforgettable alternate history: the tale of Anne, the youngest princess of a faltering England, struggling to survive in a troubled court, and Henry, a bastard abandoned on the shore to face his bewildering destiny, finding himself a pawn in a game he does not understand.

Yet even a pawn may checkmate a king.

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Review

“A delight to read, an elegant and contained work…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.”—SF Site

About the Author

Kit Whitfield is a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge and completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.Her first novel, Bareback (published in the US as Benighted) was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award, and longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award.She lives in London. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully Original April 8 2010
Format:Paperback
I greatly enjoyed Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters. While I found it a bit slow at parts (particularly after the first perspective shift from Henry to Anne) once the characters were established the book was very enjoyable, with a novel depiction of merfolk and their influence on European history.

This is not, however, a high-action book. There is conflict, and a few fights, but physical contests are resolved in a paragraph and are rarely a driving event. Instead, the book is about intrigue, betrayal, schemes, plots, and characters who try to weather or direct these things as best they can, all the while struggling to not defy the principles that they hold dear.

As such, it is not for everyone. If one is expecting an exciting adventure story in an underwater kingdom, or a novel about a poor fisherman's son who finds a legendary sword to fight an evil tyrant then you will be disappointed.

If, instead, one is expecting something more along the lines of a Neal Stephenson novel in style and tone, then one will come away exceedingly pleased.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Original May 9 2010
By elise - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As the other reviewers have said, this book is certainly original. From one moment to the next, I never had any idea what was going to happen and honestly, I wouldn't have been shocked if all of the main characters would have been killed off by the end of the book (they weren't, but with all the twists and turns, it wasn't out of the question.)

Whitfield does an incredible job of universe building. When this book was recommended to me, I thought "mermaids ... really?" But wow, this is not some sparkly young adult novel. The stark realism of Whitfield's world is incredible, and at times painful, to behold.

I admit that when the story began, told from the perspective of the foundling half-breed, Whistle, I despised him. He was so unrepentantly, believably alien. I found him incredibly repulsive from his animal thought processes to his abhorrence for everything about "landsmen" culture to his physical description. The reader is forced into Whistle's perspective, grappling with his "cloven tail" rather than legs, his black eyes, his tough gray skin, sharpened nails and teeth. He is completely foreign in thought and description. Whistle is a bastard, a half-breed, caught between the land of the deepsmen and the landmen. He is a missing link, in so many ways.

And yet, when we switch from Whistle's perspective to Anne's, it challenges the reader even further.

Anne is an English royal and behaves as I believe most readers would expect an English royal to behave. Anne is very familiar. But she and Whistle are physically the same, both half-breeds.

This book does an incredible job of challenging the reader's preconceived beliefs. By taking our commonplace history and re-casting it through the lens of this alternate universe it points of the absurdity of so much of human culture. The theological essays on how deepsmen are created in the image of God, and how the deepsmen never Fell, it was thought provoking to say the least.

The greatest triumph of the book is how believable it makes the unbelievable.

It took me quite a while, but I did really get into the book. All of the court intrigues and politics made my head spin, but it was a damn good read. I'm not really sure I ever came to like Whistle, but I do feel like he came out of the story better than any of the other characters. The story was tense, heartbreaking, and (much to my shock) laugh out loud funny in some places.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent June 13 2010
By Jacob Glicklich - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
An astounding book, highly recommended. Takes what seems light the most silly, bending-suspension-of-disbelief premise--mermaids as the central factor in the transformation of European society--and weaves an intense and satisfying story from it.

Whitfield is perhaps one of the ultimate subverters of the Masquerade, and whole theme of hidden fantasy within the present world. Her scenario takes just the opposite assumption--posit the existence of a fantasy element, even one as detached and minor as mermaids and it eventually transforms everything. In her novel contact with "deepsmen" and humans around the Renaissance lead to one Venitian family brining them openly into full on political and military conflict, leading to widespread rise and fall of different dynasties across Europe.

It is then a fantasy novel without magic, but with the presence of non-humans leading to a full-fledged alternate history that alters a lot of patterns for intrigue, culture and daily life. In Great Waters isn't about how that change is established. This element is given as backstory, instead it focuses on a specific regional situation several hundred years later where the change has already been made and everyone accepts the uses of human royalty linking politically to deepsmen and the level of intrigue for both species is deeply intertwined. It's refershing to see a strange fantasy situation taken for granted, as part of the enviornment that people have to work within. Characters in the novel find the arrangement inconvenient at points, but it's an accepted part of the sider environment with a lot of practical force behind it. The danger isn't that spurring an alliance with deepsmen will cause, for instance, England to get wiped out by them--even for an island country the water environment doesn't pose that kind of existential threat, there's simply no incentive for the deepsmen en masse to go up on land. Rather, the danger is that France with an alliance of humans and deepsmen will gain a compelling advance in navy and commerce, and that this development will lead to the decline of England's political position. In a way the book works precisely in deflating expectations of wonder and awe, by having characters accept their world largely as it is, as the unpredictable but rational situation they are accustomed to. By refraining from the moments of horror or amazement at the setup of the co-existing environments (although there is a lot of surprise when water and land societies co-mingle directly) it brings a greater sense of credibility to the setting, while also emphasizing awe in the reader for the lengths of worldbuilding.

In another strength the deepsmen are entwined with humanity but they haven't become human, and in the story told half from the point of view of one we see a very different frame of reference. It's not intrinsically better than humanity or worse--it's a psychology framed by a different environment that has a different take on basic things like family, sex and competition. One way this contrast comes up is religion--the deepsmen character, when required for social position to profess at least a nominal acceptance of God and the church refuses flat out, considering the whole concept absurd. Whitfield doesn't do the obvious with that setup, and refrains from either endorsing a theist or atheist viewpoint. Instead that framing is used to explore how separate the two viewpoints are in this case, how different the non-belief is from the human types of rejection of religion that generally occur. Highly different and yet symbiotic, such is the situation between the two species and it makes for a very stron gpremise.

The tone of the story is unsentimental and at points rather cold, and it refuses to implement the type of romantic atmosphere one would expect from the drawn out relationship at the core of the book's structure. It's not a depressing or particularly pessimistic book though, and feels more like a realistic exploration of the strange point of departure, with a range of accompanying human virtues, vices, betrayals and loyalties. Excellent writing, very engaging narrative, and some very creative ideas at work. However the point I found it most effective was in characterization, making an overall atmosphere, and showing a protagonist that doesn't share common human assumptions in a number of ways. There's a pleasing ambiguity across most of the book, it being quite unclear what will happen next or how the larger issues of the setting will play themselves out.

I'd say this book is up there with the very best of 2009, and it made it onto my Hugo nomination list for the year. Didn't get on, though, more's the pity. This point was one in my reading where I was reading a lot of recommendations for unfamiliar authors in fantasy and science fiction, and as the last half-dozen posts shows a number of these had modest or significant failure. It was good to hit a stark, flat out excellent book, one that shows speculative fiction can blow the lid off our assumptions and normal patterns and deliver a story extremely unique and strange, but at the same time fully coherent and 'realistic'.

Better than: Legacy by Greg Bear

Worse than: The Scar by China Mieville.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Problematic Dec 13 2009
By E. Smiley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I loved Whitfield's Benighted and was so excited to read her second book that I pre-ordered it from Amazon. Now I'm wishing I'd waited to get it from the library, or skipped it entirely.

The premise of the book is this: in an alternate-history version of medieval Europe, kings must retain the support of the "deepsmen" (merfolk), such that every country with access to the ocean is ruled by a half-blooded king. Being jealous of their power--in the form of the ability to communicate with the deepsmen, whose communication consists of dolphin-like sounds that "landsmen" (regular humans) can't produce--the royals have any non-royal half-blood child killed. But England is in trouble: the king is old, and the only heirs to the throne are a couple of teenage girls. Enter the protagonists: Henry, an unauthorized half-blooded child, and Anne, the younger of the two princesses.

A large part of my problem with this book is that I didn't buy the premise. Now, the idea of the deepsmen is fascinating. These aren't your mythical merfolk; Whitfield must have really thought about what such people would actually be like, and they're anything but romanticized. If you're looking for new ideas and something that hasn't been done before, you might find this book worth reading for this alone. But the way they're portrayed--with an intelligence level somewhere between that of a normal human and that of a dolphin, and primarily concerned with their own survival--I never bought into the idea that they were essential allies for anybody. And even supposing that they were, the idea that disabled kings (did I mention that the half-bloods can't walk, and at best hobble around with canes? It's painful to read about) could hold thrones all over Europe for hundreds of years merely because they can talk to the deepsmen is both ridiculous and unnecessary. That's what ambassadors are for.

Moving on to the story itself, though, we follow Henry as he's being secretly raised to be a king (having been conveniently discovered on the beach by someone willing to risk execution to keep him hidden) and Anne while she's... well, that's another problem. For the first half the book or so, Anne doesn't do much. At around 130 pages, I put the book down in disgust and left it for about a month, but once I've bought something I hate to not finish it. It does get better in the second half, and one thing I can say for it is that both the plot and characters are original; since it's not something I've seen before, I didn't know how it was going to turn out, and that's always nice. It turned out to be a quick read, but with nothing memorable except the idea of the deepsmen; the prose and the character development are competent, but things become far easier for the protagonists than they should be, and opportunities for action and excitement are continuously evaded. The dealing with the two major antagonists toward the end was unrealistic and silly.

Finally, it's rather difficult to sympathize with the protagonists: we're supposed to support Henry in his quest for the kingship (because any king is better than a Frenchman, apparently.... I suppose that makes sense if you're English?), when he wants it only to avoid execution for his bloodline. He clearly has no aptitude for the position, even flat-out stating that doesn't care for or know anything about the people of England. Huh.

This isn't necessarily a terrible book. There are some good parts--the feral-child part of Henry's story, Anne's coming-of-age, and most of all the originality. Thematics are certainly present and may redeem the book in the eyes of more "literary" readers than I. Still, due to the plotting and believability issues, I can't recommend it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique and entertaining read April 30 2012
By mommabear - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it easy to get lost in the alternate reality of humans and merpeople co-existing. Could you poke holes in the premise and/or scientific merit of merpeople, why of course! But in terms of pure entertainment, I enjoyed this unique take on European history, one in which the balance of human/merpeople peace is a delicate one. I enjoyed the characters and got lost in the book, what more can I ask for?!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, good plot, not my favorite Feb. 11 2010
By N. Composto - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This was the first book I've read in a while...always having a fascination with mermaids I decided to pick it up and see what it was about. I do agree with the other review on here...the story was original, not knowing what to expect in the plot...and the deepsmen are not in any way glamorized. But I found it difficult to enjoy the book when I couldn't relate to the protagonists in any way. Instead of being heroic in my eyes, they were two pathetic disfunctional messes. No one worth admiring. I did like Whitfield's writing style, however, and I will be reading her other book Benighted next.
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