Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge

Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge (Amulet Books, April 14 2020 in the US: Macmillan, October 2019 in the UK) is a thrilling adventure full of monsters and magic and mystery.  Recommended to those who like plucky protagonists (who take a while to realize they are plucky) facing impossible odds; not recommended to those terrified of deep dark oceans and those who cannot stand reading about toxic friendships.

The waters surrounding the long chain of islands known as the Myriad were once home to gods.  Monstrous gods, horrifying in form, rising periodically from the mysterious Undersea to bring murderous destruction to the islands.  Thirty years ago, the gods turned against each other, and when this story begins, they are only a memory; their body parts valuable and much sought after.

15-year-old Hark relies on his glib tongue to scrounge a living on one of the islands.  But his best mate, Jelt, has bigger ideas for the two of them.  When one of his schemes goes wrong, Hark is caught, and sentenced to being an indentured servant for three years.  His new master is a scientist, studying the remnant bits of the old gods, which are still full of their monstrous puissance.  Her base is an island that's home to the gods' former priests, aging men and women who say little about their past lives as the interface between the gods and the islanders.  Hark's ability to figure out what people want to hear stands him good stead in his new life, but his uncomplicated path back to freedom is blown sky high when Jelt appears back in his life.  As always, Jelt can bend Hark's will to his own, playing him skillfully until he goes along with Jelt's plans.

This particular plan is one of the maddest Jelt has ever come up with--a deep dive in a stolen submersible to look for bits of god, each worth a fortune.  It almost ends with Jelt's death then and there, but instead it ends with the recovery of the most remarkable, magical piece of one of the monsters ever--the heart of a god.

The heart's power begins to change Jelt, slowly, inexorably, and horribly.  Hark wants to save him, but unless he acts quickly, there won't be anything of Jelt left to save.  And as Hark dives deeper and deeper into the truths about the gods, and gets caught in the plots of men and women in the present wanting to use them for their own ends, he is forced to pit himself against all the strange and twisted magical power of the Undersea, power that is rising again to threaten the islands with a return to horror as part of everyday life.

Toxic relationships are everywhere in this story.  Hark is bound to Jelt by loyalty and memory of better times, and struggles to wriggle free to be his own person.  Selphin, a girl his age "seakissed" with deafness after a deep dive gone wrong, who is the daughter of a smuggler queen trying to profit from the heart's power, is likewise both bound to her mother and desperate to be her own self.  Her victory over her personal demons is essential to the success of Hark's desperate efforts to keep the islands safe.  And also playing an essential role is one of the old priests, whose toxic relationship with the gods years ago inadvertently set the current story in motion.  The islanders themselves had a toxic relationship with the gods, dazzled by their power, and feeling a lack when it was gone, and that power was in turn part of a larger geo-political reality, which I appreciated)....As a reader, I wanted the main characters to break free.  But though it was hard to watch them suffering, it certainly made them more interesting.

Pretty early in my reading, I started to be strongly reminded of Six Moon Dance, by Sherri Tepper, and that made me more nimble in figuring out was happening in advance (unusual for me).  This didn't at all diminish my interest in the complicated particulars of this story, and the mad, bad, dangerous magic of its world. Reading one of Hardinge's books is a lot like listening to music--she hits notes that resonate sharply and distinctly which then are woven into dark dreamlike themes (although this perhaps forced metaphor might well be is in my head directly as a result of the ways "god glass" in the story is tuned to notes that reshape it in marvelous ways).  Regardless, it all has very clear sensory impact--vivid, detailed, hallucinogenic in places.

There was one bit that I felt could have been better dealt with; no one in the story seems to be as worried as I am about other lost hearts spawning other new gods, or about how the first lot of gods came to be, and if the same thing could happen again.  The status quo seems very precarious.  But there were many bits I loved, especially the parts in which Hark gets to really live up to his true self (and to his name), listening to stories, and gathering them safely up.

It's not my favorite of Hardinge's books (Cuckoo Song and A Face Like Glass are more to my personal taste), but I am sure that looking back on 2020, this will stand out as one of the most memorable books of the year.  Not just because of the brilliant writing, but because of the message the story left me with--that "powerful" shouldn't be confused with right, or good, or natural, and that placation is a dead end.

Here's the UK cover, which I prefer (I'm not a huge tentacle fan).

disclaimer: review copy received from the book's publicist


  1. The US cover skeeves me out a bit!

  2. Cuckoo Song and A Face Like Glass are the only Hardinge books I've read but I am still very curious about this one. Because of Cuckoo and Face, I have a strong attachment to Hardinge as a writer of girl protagonists, so I wonder what it will be like to read one of her books with a boy protagonist. I agree the UK cover is a more appealing design...

    1. I'll be curious to see what you make of it!


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