YA Weekend Audio: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing (April 14, 2020)
Length: 12 hrs and 31 mins
I’ve always said Francis Hardinge’s imagination is unrivaled, and Deeplight was another dark delight. This time, we are transported to the Myriad archipelago, home to a people who worshiped a pantheon of terrifying, monster-like gods that would rise every so often from the Undersea and wreak havoc on the islands. But just three decades before, something strange happened. The gods turned on each other, and no one knows why.
Now, all the gods are dead…but are they truly gone? Hark, our adolescent protagonist isn’t exactly concerned about such matters. An orphan, he’s too busy trying to survive on the streets, swindling the endless supply of gullible suckers who come to these islands looking for godware, the fragments of the destroyed gods left behind after their mutual slaughter. Even a small chunk of the real deal can fetch a fortune, if it still retains some of its magical properties. The way Hark sees it though, there’s no harm in making up a tall tale here and there, selling some not-so-genuine pieces if it helps him get by and also gives his mark a good story to tell. Nobody is hurt and everyone goes home happy.
But pretty soon, Hark’s luck runs out, and he ends up on the prisoner’s auction block after a heist gone wrong. A godware researcher named Dr. Vyne buys his contract and immediately puts him to work, though she is also good to him, promising a better life and an education if he follows her rules. One, he must never lie to her, and two, he must cut all ties with everything and everyone from his shady past. Before long, though, Hark finds himself breaking both rules as his best friend Jelt manages to track him down, demanding help on yet another one of his hare-brained jobs. Unable to resist Jelt’s manipulative ways, Hark agrees, and the two of them embark on a treacherous dive into the unexplored deep. What they find there though, will change both their lives forever.
Frances Hardinge’s novels are known for their endless wonders and curiosities, and the world of Deeplight is even stranger and darker than her previous works I’ve read before. As a protagonist, Hark is sharp-witted and crafty, but also devastatingly flawed. His biggest weakness is undoubtedly his relationship with Jelt. Even though the two of them are like brothers, with Hark owing much of his upbringing to the older boy, Jelt is a bully—no kinder way to put it. There’s clearly a deliberate lesson here for readers who see the way Jelt treats Hark and the way the latter just caves to the verbal abuse and emotional blackmail. Still, Hark’s massive blind spot for this complicated friendship might be the only point that irked me about this book, and given the huge role it plays in the overall plotline as well as the development of the protagonist’s character arc, I’m not sure it even counts as a criticism.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Deeplight. The relationships are deep and well-drawn, as I alluded to before, with these extending beyond just Hark and Jelt. Dr. Vyne also brought an interesting dynamic to this tale, along with other memorable players such as the old priest named Quest and a young pirate girl named Selphin. The world-building was magnificent, which was no less than I expected from the author, who must have put a lot of thought and research into her detailed portrayal of the culture and history of Myriad and its islanders. An example of how everything is connected can be seen in the deep-diving traditions of the people and the way that maritime living has shaped their way of life. With near drownings being an unfortunate yet common occurrence among deep sea scavengers, they even have a name for the condition of hearing loss suffered by many survivors, along with a system of sign language used widely among certain groups as a result.
Then there are the gods and their mildly Lovecraftian depictions, whose underlying tones of supernatural horror and uncanniness I simply adored. Indeed, there’s an awful lot of background lore in Deeplight—and if there’s one little quibble I had with the writing, it’s that the pacing of the story was a bit uneven, namely with the intro sections being weighed down with layers of world-building detail, causing a slower start. That said, none of it feels like an info-dump, with every bit of it filling me with fascination. With a little patience, this book will pay you back in spades once the story really takes off.
Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed by a Frances Hardinge book yet. Deeplight was another winner for me, a deftly written fantastical adventure filled with imagination and heart. I was also lucky enough to score the audio edition for review, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Impressively narrated by Joshua Akehurst who brought the story to life, this audiobook drew me in and held me captivated in its beguiling, mysterious world from start to finish.