June 11, 2020

Review: Deeplight

Deeplight Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd never read anything by Frances Hardinge before, and this was a helluva introduction. I thought it was a little slow to get going--Hardinge is British, and this book has that deliberate English pacing, even at the climax--but once the central MacGuffin is retrieved, the story takes off. Our main character, Hark, has quite the character growth throughout, including facing the fact that he cannot save his toxic friend Jelt no matter how hard he tries. Hark and Jelt's convoluted, tortured relationship is the heart of this book.

But there is also some fascinating worldbuilding going on here. The setting is the Myriad, a group of independent island nations haunted by the ghosts of living gods that turned on each other thirty years ago. These gods, sort of a cross between a mutated deep sea monster and a Lovecraftian nightmare, ruled the Myriad for centuries, and human sacrifices were thrown into the sea in an attempt to appease them. No one knows why they killed each other off in a violent Cataclysm. The only things left are the scraps of dead gods harvested by the humans...and on occasion, some unlucky islander finds more than a scrap.

Hark is one of those unlucky islanders, and this is the story of his fight to save his islands from a nightmare returned. But it's also, surprisingly, a story about stories. Hark is a thief, a con artist, and a raconteur, and he collects stories both for their own sake and to use as bargaining chips. The stories of the gods he stumbles upon along the way make up a large and important part of the narrative. Those same stories are also central to Hark's personal growth, influencing the choice he makes at the end of the book as to what he will do with his life.

Stories, stories. He had always been a storyteller of sorts--eager to entertain, or win people over, or get something he wanted, or play the hero for a bit. Now other people's stories were the treasures he prized. He was a storykeeper for gods and heroes.

Once he could read and write, he would travel, he realized. He would leave Sanctuary and sail all over the Myriad. He would collect stories everywhere and save them before they could fade away from everyone's memory. You could keep people alive forever through stories.

As far as I know, this book is a standalone, but there is a whole series of adventures sketched out in these two paragraphs. We don't even need to read them. We can imagine the tales Hark collects throughout the remainder of his days, poignant stories and sad stories and dangerous stories, and the library of lives he builds on his home island. This is a lovely, thoughtful book, carrying a surprising weight. (One of the characters is a Deaf girl, here called "sea-kissed," who strenuously resists her mother's attempts to "fix" her.) I had some doubts about it in the beginning, but by the end I couldn't put it down, and that's one of the highest praises I can offer a book.

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