The Washington Post
In Great Watersby Kit Whitfield
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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Henry could remember the moment of his birth. Crushing pressure, heat, and then the contact with the sea, terrifyingly cold--but at the same time a release from constriction, the instant freedom of the skin. His mother gathered him up in her arms and swam to the surface, cradling him on her slick breast to lift his head above the water for his first breath. Henry never forgot it, the mouthful of icy air, the waves chopping his skin, a woman's arms holding him up in a world suddenly without warmth.
For the first five years of his life, Henry swam with the tribe. His name was not Henry then, it was something else, a sound best rendered by the word "Whistle." The boy was a slow swimmer. His bifurcated tail was weaker than the strong fins of the other children, leaving him unable to keep up at full speed. Nor could he stay under for as long; even his youngest companions could last half an hour without needing to surface, while Whistle was breathless in half that time. Sometimes the other children would mob him, try to pull him down; usually the adults would pull them off and give their ears a sharp twist. Usually, but not always.
One day, the children surrounded him, pulling at his legs and chattering, Stranger, stranger. He called out for his mother. She appeared from the depths and viewed the struggle for a moment. Then, with a twirl of her arms, she twisted in the water, presenting her back to him. Small hands were gripping him, hard nails digging into his limbs, ready to drag him down. Whistle was desperate. He looked again at his mother, but she was floating upright, still not turning to help him. His chest was starting to throb in panic, the air in his lungs shrinking, sucking his chest in. He was going to die.
With the last of his strength, he cried out again: Shark! Shark! His mother turned, other adults appeared, grabbing for their children to make a break for it, and the clawed little hands tugging at him broke free as the children fled, leaving Whistle to swim as fast as his legs could propel him to the surface to gasp in the air.
At three, Whistle knew that he was a stranger. The others were stronger than him, but they were also stupid. The predator trick worked more than once. His tribe did not think hard about motivations and could not afford to ignore a possible threat. The adults, he realised, were frightened, frightened continually. Even the smallest risk had to be evaded.
Whistle himself lived with fear, but he could not have put a name to it. He could identify shark, killer whale, poison fish, sharp rock--and he knew the feelings that went with them, a pulse in his chest, a shiver against the chill of the water, a speeding up of things that made everything appear brighter. His mother would clutch his hand and tug it away from a stark-spined creature that otherwise looked like a meal; she would grab him by the arm or the hair and drag him away if a shark burst into view. He saw others taken. When such things occurred, he saw eyes widen on the others' faces, and he felt his chest beat, but this sensation was not something he could have explained, even had his mother done more in the aftermath of a chase than examine each of his limbs for cuts, then turn to carry on swimming. His chest was always tight. His hands could relax, his legs could stop churning the water, but the feeling of looseness and rest was not something that ever reached his chest, and he no more thought it could than he considered trying to see with his feet. Tightness was part of his body. But he would not flee from a threat at someone else's call, not without looking around to see it first for himself.
He was growing, becoming too big for his mother to carry in her wake. She cradled him less, left him to fend for himself more. Fish were difficult to catch. It wasn't hard in theory: as the tribe swam their routes, they rehearsed strategies, singing lessons back and forth among themselves, and Whistle learned the chants easily enough. He understood the method, could remember all the tactics, the different kinds of prey and styles of hunt and changes of attack when opportunities flashed by--but he wasn't as quick as the others. He swam and corralled, heading off shoals as well as his legs would drive him, but seldom managed to grab one before some other tribe member got there first. Always his hopes rose as the tribe rallied together, driving up from below to surround and snatch at a swarming shoal, the fish coiling round and round in a sparkling whirl of bodies that whisked themselves out of his grip--only to have his hand knocked aside by a stronger reach, or, in the moments when he did manage to grab a fish of his own, to have only a few seconds of live, grappling food held tight in his fist before nails were digging in and his prize was pulled away to be eaten before his eyes by a bigger child. When his mother was around, she would share with him, splitting her catch between them, but she was not always there; when other predators caught the sound of the hunt, when marlin or dolphin threatened them for the prize, there would be a fight, the stronger men and women rising up to fight them off. On those occasions, the children would be herded together, one or two women keeping watch on all of them. Injured fish might flop their way, and the women would share what they had with their own children, the children of their sisters--but no matter how much he begged, no gifts ever came into Whistle's hands. For the most part, he lived on crustaceans, teaching himself to break open the shells of these slow, rich-fleshed crawlers. Whistle learned to lever and bend, to slip tools into the chinks and twist, releasing white drifts of meat to stuff into his mouth while he hid behind rocks and under weeds, away from the sharp ears of the tribe. Having learned, he knew he should pass the knowledge on, add it to the tribe's greater store, but he didn't dare. Better to hunt for himself and guard his catches: he was still too small, and the older he grew, the less his mother passed him a share of her own food. If others started beating him to the crabs, he might get nothing to eat at all. Secrecy was not an easy thing to maintain, but though it strained his nerves, he kept his discoveries to himself. It was becoming clear that it might be a choice between secrets and starving.
He was also getting old enough to wonder about the great dark shapes that passed overhead, the ones his mother always kept him away from, even as she grew less and less interested in protecting him. They were a recurrent presence; not every day--not as common as a hunt--but still, familiar. The first time it happened, Whistle remembered for the rest of his life.
A sound preceded it, carrying down from above, steady and unfamiliar. Whistle was used to chirruping voices, the crash of wave against rock, but this muffled, regular drumming was strange and alarming. It sounded like something thudding, but the rhythm was weirdly fast: nothing large enough to make that much noise could be wielded under the water. Whatever it was banging away, it must be horrifically strong. Whistle was already anxious by the time the shape, a great long swell of a thing, cruised overhead--and as it came into view, there was a call from one of the women: Come here, children. Stay down. Whistle was uncertain as to whether this meant him; children meant the children of the tribe, the guided and cherished and admonished young of other mothers, and it was already becoming clear to him that while he was admonished and guided at times, he was not entirely cherished. The shape above was alarming, streamlined like a shark, but it stayed on the surface like a gull, still making that strange noise: as far as he could see, it had no teeth and did not chase, and that was a novelty. No hunting creature would advertise its presence so loudly. Whistle decided to exclude himself from the category of children and started paddling his way up to where the black shape was driving along, splitting the wind-spackled ceiling and leaving it roiling in its wake.
The hand on his arm appeared faster than any grab he'd ever experienced before: it was his mother, holding him hard, her sharp nails digging into his arm. No, she said. Stay down. Not you. No. No. No. The line of her body emphasised her words, a stiff, upright pose, conveying the force of her meaning. He'd never heard her sound so fierce, and the grip on his arm was painful. Perhaps the shape was something dangerous after all. Her fingers were hurting him, but Whistle didn't struggle: as long as he was near his mother, perhaps he was safe.
But as she and another woman corralled the children, there was another sound: everyone was starting to chant. The noise was deafening: the water around them rang so hard he could feel the sound buzzing in his tightened chest. Surely this was a risk: whales could call so loud, but this was the tribe, smaller than sharks, smaller than dolphins, fierce when attacked but not so grand that they could afford to call such attention to themselves. Any predator could hear them from miles away. And the call wasn't a challenge, wasn't Stay away, we are strong, wasn't a bounce of sound to locate a shoal. It sounded, if anything, like a request. There was a word in it he didn't recognise: Coming up. Don't drop a--something. The others swam up and after the shape, chanting over and over not to drop this mysterious something, and when he turned to his mother and said, Something?, she merely tugged his arm to keep him down. Whatever the something was, it could not be named.
Whistle's chest clamped. They were calling so loud that any shark could hear them, and the world was turning strange. Nobody had ever refused him a definition before. How could he know not to eat a poison fish or grab an urchin if nobody told him? To stay silent about this mysterious something that everyone so feared was horrifying. It went against all reason, and if it made no sense, how could he know if it was safe?
Little spots were shadowing the corners of his eyes, and his ears were starting to buzz. He needed to breathe; his heart was beating against his empty lungs. He turned to his mother, saying as quietly as he could, Go up, need air. But she held him down. The something-droppers were overhead, and she would not let him rise. Whistle's head ached, pulsing, as if his very skull was being sucked down towards the vacuum in his chest, and he pulled against his mother's unyielding grip. He could ill afford the energy, but he was struggling, his body was caving in. He began to whimper, little keening sounds he'd never heard himself make before.
His mother did not look pleased, but after a moment she leaned towards him. Her free hand gripped hard around his jaw, and as she leaned in, Whistle flinched back: was she going to bite him, snatch out his whimpering tongue? But her mouth closed around his, and as her fingers dug into his face, he parted his teeth a little, and his mother exhaled. A stream of warm air flowed down into his lungs. It was thin and weak, but it was air, and his head cleared just a little before she withdrew her cold lips and handed him over to the other woman, making a fast, graceful drive for the surface. Whistle stayed down, an untrusting grip holding his arm, as his mother raced to the surface to breathe, and the dark shape moved on above them.
As the weeks and months passed, Whistle grew more used to the shapes. He grew bigger, and better able to conserve his breath. Sometimes tribe youngsters were taken up for a peek, but never Whistle. He would remain below, dizzy with lack of air, with a firm grip on his wrist holding him down. When they returned from the passing shapes--there was a word for them he learned, ships, a word that featured frequently in the chants about which route to take in which season--they would bring food, sometimes great handfuls of it, enough to share freely. It was a good day when a ship sailed overhead. The fish would be plentiful, so much of it that there was no need even to fight over it, and Whistle could eat until his stomach was full, a sensation he never knew at other times. The fish tasted odd, a little stale and lukewarm instead of the chilled, chewy flesh that the hunts caught, but it made a change from scavenged crabmeat. The ships had nothing about them that suggested any kind of threat, and the tribe were always quick to follow when they heard one. Nonetheless, the undefined word, the thing they did not want dropped, preyed on Whistle's mind. It was uncanny and dangerous, living with a mystery, and Whistle, new to the uncanny, decided he did not like it.
It was some way into his fifth year that Whistle's mother took him for a swim on their own. She was obliging, slowing her pace to his, sharing fish she caught rather than letting Whistle stop to search for crabs. The water around them grew brighter, cloudier, the floor rising up and up, pressing them closer to the surface. The lack of space made Whistle nervous; everything seemed to be shrinking. If he chirruped, sound bounced back at him fast: there were no distances to scan. Something was blocking the echoes. He made to turn around, and found his mother's hand on his arm, dragging him on, faster than before. The floor loomed up beneath them, nearer every moment, and there were suddenly barriers on either side of them, walls of rocks, and then a harsh new sound beat in his ears--for a few yards up ahead, the world gave out, the water thinned to a ragged edge, crashing again and again, dying on the bank.
Whistle found the floor was right up against him, the surface breaking over his back. His mother gave him a shove. His feet felt the pressure of the sand: his eyes saw a vast bank of it, terrifyingly dry beyond the waves. He turned, holding out his arms to his mother, saying, Move on. Bad place.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet 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.
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The leaders of Venice broker a deal with the deepsmen to benefit both the landowners and the merfolk. Over the centuries the two races intermingle through marriages with the mer controlling the water. Other countries followed suit to keep a watery invasion from occurring. However, many countries like England began to ban mixed marriages with the offspring to be executed while the mer insist a half-breed must rule the nations of the landsmen bordering on the sea.------------ After five years under the sea, illegitimate cowardly Whistle becomes Henry when he is placed in England to be quietly put on the throne by his controllers. Blue faced Princess Anne is part of the plot to have puppets as king and queen as rulers of England. However, their handlers never expected Henry or Anne let alone both to prove intelligent and unmanageable as they team up in an unexpected alliance.----------- This is a terrific alternate historical fantasy that brings the world of Kit Whitfield alive as readers will believe in the existence of the mer. Henry makes his species seem real especially early in the story as he goes from a happy child swimming in the deep blue sea to a frightened displaced illegal immigrant feeling alone while struggling to adapt to the landsmen lifestyle of England. Fans will appreciate the depth of this exciting thriller.--------- Harriet Klausner