Deep Water is the second book in Pamela Freeman’s The Castings trilogy and though it suffers just a tad from middle book syndrome, this is a great continuation from the last book Blood Ties, enriching the world and developing the characters, as well as setting things up nicely for the final installment.
The Eleven Domains were conquered thousands of years ago by Acton’s people, who marched across the northern mountains and massacred the dark-haired people (now called “Travelers” due to their nomadic lifestyle) already settled there. The memory of this injustice is still remembered by the Travelers to this day, and has lead one powerful enchanter to call up the ghosts of those killed in the attacks in order to reap vengeance on the descendants of those that murdered them. The armies of the dead are set loose in various villages and cities; an unstoppable force that leaves carnage in its wake.
Blood Ties introduced us to this world, in which “stone-casters” can read the will of the gods in scattered stones, where ghosts can temporarily rise in order to settle unfinished business before departing for the next life, and where the warlord Thegan is conquering various free towns and commons in order to solidify his hold on the land. Deep Water takes the story-threads begun in the previous book and deepens the quest narrative of our main protagonists: Bramble, Ash and their assorted allies.
Having decided to act against the raising of the ghost armies, Bramble journeys to find Acton’s bones and force his spirit to make reparations to those he killed so many years ago. But a spirit has to be sung up out of the past, and Ash knows that before he’s able to achieve such a thing, he needs to learn the correct songs from his estranged father. So the two of them part company: one to an Ancient Forest to contact the gods and learn where Acton’s bones are, and the other to the Deep to learn the pertinent skills needed to complete their task.
Despite her own resentment toward Acton’s people, and her long-held belief in the evil of the ancient warlord, Bramble accepts the duty that the gods have put before her. As such, she spends most of the book’s length in a deep trance in order to relive the past through the point of view of various participants. There she learns that the story of Acton was not so cut-and-dry as the old traditions would have her believe. Meanwhile, Ash fights his own sense of uselessness in order to return to his people and convince them to reveal the secrets that his lack of talent has always excluded him from.
Bramble is a fantastic character — lively, vivid, charismatic; someone who enjoys walking the edge between danger and excitement. Although she’s something of a loner, she still has enough sense of social responsibility to silence her own hatred of the people who have subjugated her for so many years, and work toward the greater good of humankind. Ash is more subdued, though no less intriguing, particularly in regards to his innate sense of worthlessness and his newfound talent that he discovers on the road. Whenever he feels as though he has found his true calling in life, a new obstacle arises to take it away again, but still he trudges on despite the onset of personal despair.
The Castings sets itself apart from the usual swords-and-sorcery fare in two distinct ways. The first is that there is no “ultimate evil” at loose in the land. Everyone, whether malignant or benign, has believable and often sympathetic motivation for what they’re doing. The enemy here is not some demonic dark lord or supernatural evil, but rather the mundane evils of racism, hatred, and anger that has been festering for thousands of years. Although the Travelers who were forcibly dispossessed from their lands still nurture the injustice of the invasion and Acton’s people often take advantage of their dominance in order to get away with various crimes against the Travelers, there are pockets of communities in which the two live in harmony. Intermingling has meant that many people (including our protagonists) are of mixed blood, and no one race, gender or individual has the monopoly on “goodness.”
On tracing the history of Acton’s past we discover along with Bramble that facts and details have been warped over time, and the essential source of the world’s problems (the mysterious “Ice King”) turns out to be something beyond the control of any one human being. There are no “black and white” answers here, only many shades of grey, which should make for a unique and challenging conclusion to the conundrum in Full Circle.
The second unique characteristic of the trilogy is a stylistic feature. Interspersed throughout the chapters that focus on our central players are small vignettes that tell the stories of various side-characters in first-person narrative. Their tales serve to give context to the parts they play in the central cast’s journey, and to add depth and richness to Pamela Freeman’s created world and its culture. Providing hope or pathos, these chapters give a sense of what exactly is at stake should our heroes fail in their quest.
Whereas Blood Ties was a pleasantly meandering story that set the scene and characters, Deep Water is more introspective, and mainly concerns the uncovering of the historical context which set current events in motion. In both cases, the books are quite different from what one would expect from the standard fantasy genre. It is this that makes them so distinctive, though it remains to be seen how Pamela Freeman will wrap up the seemingly impossible problem that besets her characters and the world they live in.
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That was my view as well, as you'll see in my soon-to-post review