Author: Claire McKenna (website / twitter)
UK Publisher: HarperCollins
See Also: Monstrous Heart
Since losing her great love to the Queen of the Sainted Isles, Arden must fulfil an impossible promise before she can return home – she must complete the dangerous Rite that will return Jonah’s spirit to the abyssal Court of the Deepwater King.
This sets her off on a journey far out at sea to find believers of the old religion on the oil-slick and mysterious islands beyond the horizon. But such a responsibility will not come without sacrifice, for the Deepwater folk who worship the King require the most desperate payments the soul, and with one man Arden may have to pay the greatest price of all…
I adored Monstrous Heart, when I read it. So much so that when I realised exactly how stunning the hardbacks were (I’d got digital ARCs for both it and Deepwater King), I actually went out and bought hard copies of both. Because they’re stunning, and because I felt that book one was so special I was certain I was going to want to keep this series and read it again and again. I loved how atmospheric it was, and the way the setting and concept combined to make the whole thing feel unique. I hadn’t encountered much maritime Steampunk-esque literature, and this really tickled me.
Deepwater King became another one of those books that I kept sort of circling around because I really wanted to savour it. What do you do when you have a novel that felt so groundbreaking that you want to be in the right headspace to read the next one? When the first one catches you by surprise it’s not a problem, but then the fear of your brain not being prepared to enjoy the book as much as the first time leads you to flannelling around to wait for the “perfect” moment.
This is a second novel in a trilogy – I’ve had a run of those lately – so it does the job of pushing a broader plot than book one, but not giving as much of a resolution because it’s building up for the big finish of book three. It’s a tricky balancing act, but I feel like McKenna does well here by adjusting the focus of the story. Book one was a dark romance, a gothic novel with a mystery and hint of conspiracy. A villain was teased, a plot was hinted at, but the full details weren’t there. We leave book one with characters on the run, and another needing a rescue.
There are two narrative lines in this. The first picks up with Arden on the run, and on the search for Jonah. She and her two companions flee the control of the Eugenics society and the head away from the only world that Arden has ever known, and her dreams of progressing in her career and gaining her own independence, permission to marry and build a life within the rules of her government. The transition away from the little “civilisation” she had found at the Vigil lighthouse is stark, and life outside of the government’s reach might be free, but it is brutal. The other storyline follows Jonah in his captivity, and the punishments he is put through by the no longer sane woman who everyone thought was dead.
Aside from the monsters of the deep, and there are the monsters on the land – both those obviously monstrous, and those more deceptively sinister. Arden struggled enough with the slightly rougher manners in Vigil, but there was still a sense of social structure and etiquette, but there is nothing in these wild lands, where the water and air are poison, polluted by the ghostly machines which run forever, controlled by a magic from generations long ago. Both Arden and Jonah find societies that follow pagan beliefs, violent and unforgiving. Woven between this is the story of Jonah’s wife, Bella, and how two people from such widely different walks of life became entangled. The threads of this conspiracy are woven back further than Arden is aware of, and as was heavily implied in book one, Jonah was a victim of another’s plans.
Much like book one, I think there are some warnings to be aware of – rape, sex trafficking, and some very brutal scenes of violence, torture and cruelty. The magic of these lands is blood magic, so it can feel quite visceral even if the situation itself is portrayed as fairly mundane for the characters. That was perhaps more the case in book one than in this one, in fairness, because there is very little mundanity in Deepwater King. Even the brief moments of respite that are offered seem torturous in their own way, and the exhaustion and wretchedness of the book can be felt strongly in the narrative.
I mentioned in my review of book one that I wanted to see more of the world, but I expected Mckenna to take the readers back to “civilisation” sooner than she did. Instead, while we see more of the world, the parts she takes us to are wilder, more divorced from anywhere else, remote and insular. It’s a strange sensation of seeing more but the wider world you see feels claustrophobic. Possible because, as the story expands, we become more enlightened to the way conspiracy has touched every part of it. Arden and Jonah are further physically from the government than they have ever been, but everywhere they turn they find fingerprints of espionage and manipulation, and realise that perhaps none of their choices has ever really been theirs to make…
I’m excited to see where this book is taken in the final part, and to see yet another facet of this complex, dark and fascinating world that McKenna has created.