They say that the Undersea was the dwelling place of the gods. They say many things of the Myriad, and all of them are true. The gods were as real as the coastlines and currents and as merciless as the winds and whirlpools.
No one knows who or what the gods were, the giant creatures who lived in the sea and then, mysteriously, all died. But everyone knows that a piece of a dead god can make your fortune. Hark is still a child himself, all of 14 years old, but he knows it, too. That’s why he’s in the crowd when a submarine brings back parts of the Hidden Lady, the god that used to live in the waters around the archipelago on which he lives. His friend, Jelt, knows it too, and he has plans that call for Hark to do some hazardous things to make them both rich. Hark pays the price for Jelt’s foolishness, sold into indentured servitude.
Hark is lucky that he has a golden tongue. That gets him purchased by Dr. Vyne, a woman who has need of a good liar. She is a scientist who works with the Sanctuary, home to broken priests who used to lead worship for the now-dead gods, “a haven for those priests who could no longer look after themselves, a retreat from the cruel, incomprehensible, godless world.” Most of Hark’s work involves caring for the old priests, many of whom bear Marks: mutations caused by their exposure to the gods, deep in the Undersea. But Dr. Vyne also has other plans for him, starting with some real schooling, and Hark is delighted to find that this means he’ll be taught to read and write.
But Jelt isn’t willing to give up his hold on Hark, who continues to think of Jelt as his best friend, someone he can’t possibly abandon no matter how dangerous and stupid his plans for the two of them. Things go completely awry when Jelt and Hark stumble across an important piece of a dead god and discover its strange properties. And Hark has to make some decisions about who he wants to be.
The weirdness of Deeplight (2019) — perhaps that should be Weirdness, because this book belongs firmly in the tradition of the New Weird — is toned down more than I’d like, but it’s definitely there. There are strange things to see and learn, many of them in the ocean, where a fair bit of the action in this novel takes place. Deeplight is age-appropriate, despite its resemblance to tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, not too frightening for younger readers, and not too tame for adult readers. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Frances Hardinge manages it nicely.
There is no doubt that this book is intended to teach a few lessons about making choices, but the world it describes is not any more black and white than ours is — and Hardinge mostly avoids preachiness. There are always trade-offs, and Hark has to learn to make difficult decisions about friendship, his future, and when risks are worth taking.
Deeplight has been nominated for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, which is awarded at Worldcon along with the Hugos. It won’t get my vote, though; I would have enjoyed Deeplight a lot more if it had delved into Weirdness more deeply. Writing for a young adult audience probably kept Hardinge from creating a more brooding and horrific atmosphere. That makes sense: one would hardly give Laird Barron’s work to a 12-year-old, for instance. This book would be a good first step into the New Weird for an imaginative young adult without causing nightmares. The experienced and older admirer of the subgenre, however, will be a bit disappointed in reading about a world that has so much Weird promise, but does not fulfill it.