Review of the Day: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
The other day I was hanging out with some friends when one of them, a young adult author, accused me of harboring an unholy dislike, nay, hatred of the young adult novel as a form. I pointed out that I have no problem with teen literature, I simply don’t truck with it myself. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to books for youth, all titles stop at 6th grade. Of course, there is an exception to every rule. I may eschew the world of young adult books out of principal, but there is one author out there for whom I would break every rule you could name. If you have not already read the works of Frances Hardinge, you are in for a treat. If you have read Frances Hardinge and weren’t quite sure what to make of her, then you simply need to try her again. Though she lingers primarily in the world of fantasy (with the occasional alternative history thrown in there for spice) each book conjures up wholly different rules and worlds. Somehow, Hardinge is able to change her internal logic from book to book. As a result, concepts that would strike you as ludicrous in any other context are, beneath her hand, self-explanatory. So basically, if you don’t like one Hardinge, simply try another. You’ll find the groove that fits your style. Now her latest Deeplight is not a book that I would normally gravitate towards, but this being Hardinge I had to give it a shot. And so, while I don’t give time or space to young adult reviews normally, for a book like this even I have to pay it homage, however I can.
The gods are dead. A Nietszchean concept indeed, but nonetheless true. Thirty years ago they ruled the seas, enormous and terrifying, part human, part sea creature, and all monster. Then, for whatever reason, they devoured and killed one another, leaving nothing but body parts scattered to the waves. Not that 15-year-old Hark knows any more about it than anyone else. He’s lived his whole orphaned life on the island, Lady’s Crave. Mostly he spends his time sweet talking and bilking the tourists, though once in a while his oldest friend, Jelt, will ask for help on a job. That’s how, despite his best intentions, Hark ends up arrested and working for a doctor on an island full of monks. It’s how he gets stuck diving deep with Jelt into unexplored waters, where he finds a strange pockmarked object. When it pulses it heals, a seemingly innocuous effect. Yet as Jelt seeks to exploit the object, Hark learns not just of what it can do, but about the true story behind the gods themselves. The gods are dead and they want to come back, so this little pulsing heart is seeking the perfect flesh to mold itself to.
There’s a moment in the movie Barcelona where two friends are talking and one asks, “What do you call what’s above the subtext?” “The text.” “OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.” With a Hardinge novel, the subtext is always present but usually it’s a lot more fun to talk about the text. In each book, that subtext crops up to varying degrees of subtlety. In the case of Deeplight, I thought Hardinge played her hand with great care. So much so, that I fear too many people will miss what it is she’s doing here. Within this story is a pretty clear-cut examination of the relationship between fear and xenophobia. The gods, we learn, literally lived on fear. Fear, you see, always works its way into the sea, and it was there that it grew the gods and made them strong. When the gods died, a lot of that fear died as well. That, in turn, means that the people who live on the continent are less afraid to travel to the islands and this makes a lot of the islanders (particularly one specific group) worried. To their mind, it would be better to deal with a monster that was local and homegrown (and likely to eat you) than someone strange with different religions and beliefs. Better to die at the hand of the familiar than live, and maybe come to accept, the unfamiliar. Not that Hardinge makes any of this sound as clunky and obvious as I’m putting it here. She’ll just pepper it lightly throughout the book where you might notice it or might not. In one scene Hark speaks dismissively of a continental’s religion and the person with whom he is speaking lays out just how ignorant he is about the differences between different continentals. If you care, it’s there.
But why do you read a Frances Hardinge book? You read it because her brain doesn’t seem to operate in the same fashion as yours or mine. Each book she writes could only have come from her. She sounds like no one else, writes like no one else. Even when she’s pulling herself back to toe the proverbial line (as she did in Well-Witched) she just can’t seem to keep her more creative instincts from leaking out. In this book, Hardinge returns to the sea. Islands have always played a large part in her narratives. Whether she’s dissecting the nature of colonialism in something like The Lost Conspiracy (called Gullstruck Island in the U.K.), or suffering coastal sea lines in The Lie Tree, islands hold a strange fascination for her. Honestly, I wouldn’t blink an eye if one of these days she set a book in deep space, such is her propensity for examining how people band together in the face of the loneliness of the unknown.
Though I mentioned some of the subtext at work in this book, what sustains the narrative and concludes it so beautifully is the fact that this tale is all about stories. Our hero, Hark, makes his living, and often saves his own life, by telling them. Stories are everything. They can assuage a god or calm a friend. Politicians can use them to spread lies and malarkey or unbelievable truths on a wide scale. Left untold they can eat away inside of you until you’ve curdled and changed. It’s a true mark of personal growth then when, near the end, Hark comes to understand that sometimes it’s even more important for him to listen to the stories of others than to tell them. The very last scene involves a storyteller making the choice to listen to others before they toss their own tales out there for others to hear. We make sense of our lives through storytelling. For this reason alone, people like Frances Hardinge (and, let us be truthful, there is no one out there like Frances Hardinge) are amongst our most valuable. Whenever I have a chance to get my hands on a new book of hers it’s only because I want one thing: to be told a story I’ve never heard before. Deeplight fulfills that wish and a lot more besides. My sole regret is that I only get to read it for the first time once.
On shelves April 14th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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