Desdemona and the Deep (2019) is C.S.E. Cooney’s third novella in the DARK BREAKERS series, but is a self-contained story that can stand alone. A finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novella, Desdemona and the Deep is a dreamy, sensual trip through the otherworlds. I’ll let Cooney set the scene:
Four stories above the Grand Foyer of the Seafall City Opera House, each painted panel in the barrel-vaulted ceiling depicted a scene from one of the three worlds. Which world it happened to be depended on the tint and tone of the panel: daylight was for Athe, the world of mortals; twilight represented the Valwode, where the gentry dwelled; and midnight belonged to Bana the Bone Kingdom, home to all the koboldkin. Through these wheeling coffers of world-skies — day dancing into dusk, dusk swirling into night, night into day again — cavorted the bright-winged, the beautiful, the bizarre. In that ceiling, at least, human and gentry and goblin all intermingled together, like they had in olden days before the doors between worlds were barred and the boundaries set.
The world is not quite our world, the time period something like the early twentieth century. There are cars and electric lights, radium girls and girls with phossy jaw. Women can vote, but it’s a recent development. Desdemona Mannering is the daughter of an estranged couple: her father a robber baron, her mother a do-gooder who campaigns for women’s rights and workplace safety. Desdemona herself is kind of spoiled and shallow, at least at the beginning. She’s never really thought too hard about where her family’s wealth comes from, and she’s oblivious to something important about her best friend, Chaz.
Coming home drunk after one of her mother’s benefits, Desdemona eavesdrops on her father and witnesses something shocking: her father, conversing with a mysterious figure in the fireplace, bargaining away the lives of his workers as a tithe. In exchange, he wants an oil deposit to be found on his land. The next morning the papers proclaim a horrific disaster at H.H. Mannering’s coal mine.
Seized by guilt, Desdemona decides to travel to the Bone Kingdom to save the men. Her ancestral home, the Breakers, is an ancient portal between the worlds, so she won’t have to go far, at least on the surface. But the Valwode and the Bone Kingdom have plenty of dangers in store for her and for Chaz.
The story is a feast for the senses. It’s told in elegant, frothy prose with a vein of dry wit. Desdemona’s character development is really well done; she is changed in important ways by her journey, while still remaining recognizably herself. I also liked, for lack of a better term, the faerie logic. There were several times I learned something about how the realms worked and thought, “Oh, yeah, that makes total sense!” Not human-sense, but sense nonetheless.
Cooney wraps up Desdemona and the Deep with a satisfying resolution to a subplot I hadn’t even realized she was going to revisit. This was beautifully done, and the perfect way to end it.
Let’s be honest, you probably already know if you like this kind of story (I do)! And if you do, what are you waiting for?
I’ll join Kelly in praising this lushly-told fantasy novella by C.S.E. Cooney, set in an alternative, fantastical version of our world, with strong 1920s vibes to it. There are hidden portals to different realms below our world where magic rules, along with goblins and demons. Desdemona, the goodhearted but initially spoiled and thoughtless daughter of an immensely wealthy coal magnate, overhears her father making a bargain with a goblin or “Kobold” from one of the kingdoms below, for oil to be found on a piece of land he owns. In return, her father will pay a “tithe” of men to the Kobold king, who will be taken to the Kobold’s kingdom for the rest of their lives, to be slaves or whatever the king chooses. Worse yet, her heartless father plans a mining disaster to kill the men not taken by the Kobolds, to hide the disappearance of the others.
Jolted into action, Desdemona figures out a way to get to the kingdoms below to try to retrieve these men. She grabs her cross-dressing (and perhaps more than that … ) friend Chaz to join her on her adventure, opens a portal to the kingdoms below, and promptly gets separated from Chaz.
It’s a wild quest, dark yet hopeful, and filled with danger and mystery, shapeshifting (including gender), and fascinating beasts and creatures of every kind. The world-building is comprehensive, giving the indelible impression that there is much more in these worlds to explore, and many more tales to come. In fact, this is the third novella Cooney has written in this world; she’s currently withdrawn the first two from publication and is reworking them, with the intention of republishing them in autumn 2021. However, Desdemona and the Deep easily stands on its own … though I’m anxious to read the first two works when they become available again.
Cooney’s writing is truly lovely and engaging, with dark undertones throughout.
Objects rocketed overhead and splatted down … Mostly they were soft, rotted things like the faceted fruit of the orchard, jewels melting to slime; a spotted salmon wheezing dire prophecies as it drowned in air; wailing mandrake rootlings, bleeding from mouths and eyes; small winged bodies, limp and broken; more, so much more, all dead or dying, evidence of the Valwode failing, of the senescing dream.
Both Desdemona and Chaz find themselves profoundly changed in the course of their quest. Cooney melds modern sensibilities (gender identity and sexual orientation) with traditional folktale concepts. At one point, a goblin guide named Farklewhit comments to Desdemona: “Now, a Tattercoats is a species of the Nine-Tails genus, from the Thousandfurs family” — evoking and combining two related fairy tales in one character.
There were a few unconventional and even grotesque elements that pulled me out of the story temporarily (for example, Desdemona’s arousal by the rank smell of Farklewhit’s wooly body), but those may be a matter of taste, and I can’t say they didn’t fit with the ambiance of this tale.
I highly recommend Desdemona and the Deep to readers who like evocative, queer fantasy.