Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve fantasy book reviewsUtterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve fantasy book reviewsUtterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve has been one of my favourite authors for a while now, even though most of his stories are slightly outside my preferred genres. I loved Railhead, which was science-fiction, and Mortal Engines, which was dystopian – so imagine the weird squeaky noise of excitement I made on discovering that his latest book was not only in my genre wheelhouse (fantasy, of course) but which bore the captivating title of Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep (2021). THEN it turns out that “Utterly Dark” is the name of its protagonist. I think I did a full-body spin in the middle of the library with this book clutched to my heart.

As such, it was top of my summer holidays reading list, and with its emphasis on rugged coastlines, isolated watchtowers, faraway islands and churning ocean currents, it made for perfect reading material for the season. I could almost smell the brine and taste the salt in the air.

Here’s the story: when Utterly Dark was just an infant, she was washed up on the shores of Wildsea Island, the westernmost knub of land in the small archipelago known as the Autumn Isles. There she was found and taken in by solitary Andrewe Dark, the Watcher on Wildsea, whose solemn duty is to ascend the tower of Sundown Watch every day without fail and scan the sea for any sightings of the Hidden Isles.

These isles are shrouded in myth and legend – all anyone really knows is that centuries ago, a terrible creature known as the Gorm rose from the waters and rampaged across the island, driven back only by Andrewe’s ancestor wielding his great sword. Since then, there has always been a Watcher on Wildsea.

This is why the entire community is thrown into a tailspin when Andrewe Dark is found drowned on the beach, his pockets full of stones. Utterly has no idea if Andrewe took his own life, or why he might have done so if he did, but while everyone waits for his brother Will to be fetched from London society to resume his position as the next Watcher, Utterly takes it upon herself to do the job herself in the interim. Climbing the stairs to the watchtower each night, she begins to uncover some of her foster-father’s secrets, which suggest that the Hidden Isles might not be as inaccessible to humankind as everyone has been led to believe…

As ever, the story unwinds in Reeve’s exceptional prose, which is such a joy to read, whether it’s the elderly Mr and Mrs Skraeveling being described as “a short, kindly, sturdy pair, who had been married for so long that they had come to resemble each other like matching salt and pepper pots” to the experience of being on the ocean: “they floated in silence for a while, rising and falling… there was a rhythm to it, as if they were resting on the chest of an immense and gently breathing animal… all around them the big waves shone like hills of shining ice.”

The characters are wonderful too, from the wise troll-woman Aish, to the out-of-his-depth Will Dark, to the wonderfully deranged sea-witch Thurza Froy, to Utterly herself: tenacious, determined, curious, brave and clever – as befits any Reeve-written heroine. Then of course, there’s the Gorm, who comes straight out of a Lovecraftian tome on ancient leviathans, but with a couple of surprises in store, even for the most discerning young reader.

The best writers know that it’s not just the telling of a story, but the way in which it’s told that makes for a great reading experience – the gradual unravelling of mysteries, the insights as to how characters view themselves and the world they inhabit, the descriptive prose that brings everything to life. Reeve never fails in this regard. Thank goodness I’ve already got the sequel – Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild – on my bedside table.

Published in September 2021. It was always around sunset when they were seen. In that hour of twilight, when the walls between the worlds grew thin, strange things could slip through the cracks. And sometimes, so the stories went, enchanted islands would appear in the empty ocean west of Wildzee. When Ultra washed up on the beach of Wildzee Island as a baby, she was adopted by Andrew Donker, the Guardian of Wildzee. When he is found dead on that same beach eleven years later, with stones in his pockets, everything changes. Because who will now stand guard to warn the island of the danger in that mysterious ocean? A magical and exciting story about friendship, family and the power of the sea, from award-winning author Philip Reeve.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.