Moments before he sets sail into pirate waters to rescue prisoners, Captain Darok Juell receives additional orders—to take a mysterious woman on board who will help him in his mission.
When she arrives, she is unlike any woman he has ever seen. A cold, controlled operative of Seawatch, Yerena Fin Caller wields an iron hand over her emotions, and an almost magical control over a great white shark.
On the surface, her orders are simple: use her shark to guide Darok through dangerous waters, attack any pirates who interfere. Her emotions must remain under lock and key, lest they travel along her delicate connection with the finned killing machine below.
As she and Darok navigate the Strait of Mists into the Iron Ocean—and evade a killer-whale-controlling traitor—Darok’s generosity and warmth coax Yerena to give in to desire. But they have no future together. Especially if Darok’s legendary recklessness forces her to obey a secret order to send his ship to the bottom of the sea…
There are books you pick up simply because the blurb shouts Look at me! I’m different! The Deepest Ocean is one of these: it came by way of an offer of ‘Sharkpunk romance for review’. Now, if that’s a subgenre of romance, it’s not one I’ve previously encountered. But new is often interesting, and this book has rather a lovely cover. And well: Sharks!
The plot begins much as the blurb promises, with tall ships, sharks and pirates, but opens up into a bigger and quite complicated story with multiple subplots that weave, and sometimes, tangle into the main thread: which is that the Powers That Be have ordered Darok’s ship, the Daystrider (a distant cousin of Dawntreader?), off on what must surely be a suicide mission to save a distant colony from pirates, and have sent Yerena (not her real name) and her It’s not a pet shark along to make sure that, should Daystrider fall into pirate hands, he doesn’t survive the experience. The pirate leader is a really bad baddy: we know this because she gloats as she breaks her promises and turns her captives into zombie coral monsters, which even her minions consider a bad idea (I’d like to just step back from telepathic sharks a moment and say brain coral is the best extrapolation from marine biology ever to feature in a fantasy). Aligned with the pirates is someone who, for simplicity, I’ll call Kovir (names are complicated in this book) who, like Yerena, can control sea-life telepathically but he has a whole pod of killer whales at his command. Oh, and to reach the pirates’ lair, Daystrider has to do what no one’s ever done before and pass the Straits of Mist, where ghost ships lurk, and dead sailors drag the living to their doom.
So disguised warship. One great white shark. Lots of pirates. Zombie coral monsters. Ghost ship. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s something else in the abyssal depths on Kovir’s mind.
And that’s just the beginning. The plot rapidly gets more complicated than that. Don’t worry – you’ll be fine. Plotwise.
Actionwise too. There’s no shortage of action, what with ghost ships, pirates, sharks, and sea monsters summoned from the abyss. The action scenes are at points frenetic – there’s a large cast of characters, each with his/her agenda, involved, and the fight is usually going on simultaneously up in the rigging, on the decks, amidships, and – as you’d hope in a book about telepathic sharks – under the water. As with Zero Sum Game (reviewed some months back), I felt I was reading a book heavily influenced by film or television narrative conventions. During the large scale action pieces (and that I use this phrase points up how much I felt these influences) the narrative voice panned back from immediate experience to show the wider scene, thus Darok up in the crow’s nest at night time can see through smoke and flame that the shark’s attack turns the sea dark with blood.
So plot: tick. Action: tick (mostly – deduct a point for confusing inertia with momentum). How are we doing?
Well, there’s tone and characterisation. Despite the levity of my introduction to this review - I mean, there’s a secret organisation devoted to training telepathic sea-life and zombie coral monsters and pirates and a great white shark and a ghost ship and an undercover assassin - this book is serious stuff, tending towards darkness, and Perera plays it absolutely straight. I was, I’ll admit, expecting something a bit more light-hearted from the term 'sharkpunk'. Instead, think Master and Commander with monsters. Given this tone, I’d have appreciated more depth to the characterisation: Darok is a model hero; Yerena competent and controlled; Jash the pirate ruthless; and Kovir someway-over-the-borderline insane. Each time, a little salt and nuance would have added flavour. The fantasy is satisfying but the romance less convincing: I was well aware that Yerena had spent a lifetime learning to repress her emotions but the writing never quite let me believe she was at last bursting through her conditioning or that her relationship with Darok was enough to make her question everything. Despite the fairly enthusiastic sex, The Deepest Ocean is not in the end a metaphor: feeling in this book is, like Yerena’s emotions, under very tight control. The emotional heart of the story is not the relationship between Yerena and Darok but between Yerena and her shark.
And as with Yerena and Darok, so with the other characters. There are so many people in this story who deserve high drama but the low-key prose underplays each time. That is a valid narrative choice: not every story needs to overwhelm a reader with a tidal wave of feeling. I, however, wished I felt more for the set of secondary characters whose lives were so filled by suffering and pain. There’s enough regret and anguish in Lady Lisabe’s – to pick just one – life to fill a book twice over, but she is offstage for so long, seen only in glimpses, when she finally moves to the centre of the action, and we discover her role and motivation, it is underwhelming.
But the book comes vividly to life when the shark and other monsters swim (or occasionally lurch) into view. So, in the end, it's a thumbs up for sharkpunk.
The Deepest Ocean
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