Fantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.
This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:
In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)
The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.
Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.
Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake [...] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.
As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).
There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.
I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.
But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.