Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

This may be the most original fantasy novel I’ve read so far this year! I genuinely can’t believe this is billed as a children’s book when it’s so rich and layered and honestly deeply interrogative of personal and political relationships and choices. It’s so much more thoughtful and nuanced than at least 75% of the adult and YA fantasy I’ve ever read in my lifetime, with terrific deaf representation, too. I’m genuinely shocked not to have heard of it before the Lodestar slate for the Hugos came out!

Our protagonist Hark is an orphan on Lady’s Crave, one of the islands that make up the Myriad Archipelago. The Myriad used to worship terrifying monsters from the deep who guarded each island or cluster of same, until several decades ago when the gods began to tear each other apart. Nowadays, there’s a thriving trade in godware, the relics of the dead sea monsters that possess unusual and often coveted properties. Hark is a scavenger and his best friend in the world is Jelt, who’s looked out for him since they were little. As Jelt grows older and harder, however, their relationship begins to sour.

When Jelt guilts Hark into a reckless undertaking that gets Hark arrested, Hark is at first upset, then grateful for the fact that his sentence requires him to stay away from his former associates or face an even worse punishment. But Jelt shows up again with the promise of one last score, and Hark is unable to resist his friend’s bullying tactics. Things go dreadfully awry, setting Hark on a terrible path: either choose to save his friend or to save Myriad.

The blurb calls Deeplight a cross between 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Frankenstein, and while those influences are obvious in this novel, it’s so much more. The toxic friendship between Hark and Jelt opens Hark up for some real soul-searching, even before he begins to understand as more than instinct the power of and need for storytelling as witness. The truth about the sea monsters, birth to demise, was also really well done, as was the dissection of the usage of fear and the hard choices that had to be taken in order to protect Myriad. Frances Hardinge doesn’t paint in broad, heroic brushstrokes, but carefully takes into account the ramifications — the cold equations, if you will — our characters must accept as being an inescapable part of their work and good intentions. It is both deeply moral and deeply nuanced, and just about one of the smartest, most original things I’ve read all year.

Also, it’s only the second book I’ve read that uses the word “goddery” which is a term/concept I very much love (the first was Roger Levy’s The Rig.) I definitely need to read more of Ms Hardinge. If there’s one thing I’m grateful to the Hugos this year for more than any other, it’s for introducing me to her exceptional work.

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