“Deeplight” by Frances Hardinge: Book Review

They say many things of the Myriad, and all of them are true.

Subnautica Meets Frankenstein Meets Lovecraft | Deeplight by Frances Hardinge [A Book Review]

Star Rating: ★★★✭☆ • 3.75 / 5 stars

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein in Frances Hardinge’s latest fantasy adventure

The gods are dead. Decades ago, they turned on one another and tore each other apart. Nobody knows why. But are they really gone forever?

When 15-year-old Hark finds the still-beating heart of a terrifying deity, he risks everything to keep it out of the hands of smugglers, military scientists, and a secret fanatical cult so that he can use it to save the life of his best friend, Jelt. But with the heart, Jelt gradually and eerily transforms. How long should Hark stay loyal to his friend when he’s becoming a monster–and what is Hark willing to sacrifice to save him?

The Plot Summary (is… Meh)

This book was insanely unsettling at times. To me at least. Like, it’s just labelled as a fantasy, YA book, but the horror genre felt strong with this one.

Deeplight is a stand-alone novel by Frances Hardinge published on April 14, 2020 by Amulet Books. (Well, technically it has a short story set in the same universe, but that’s it.) It centers on Hark, a young fifteen year old orphan boy, who discovers a mysterious porous stone from under the sea, that appears to have a heartbeat.

He then shoves it into the cold, dead hands of the abuser that his childhood best friend, because he’s a normal functioning teenager, and they do be like that.

Then said best friend slowly begins to evolve into a vaguely Cthulhu-looking, deep-sea monstrosity with an even worse personality. And things just get worse from there.

And that’s pretty much what the book description decides to sum up. What it doesn’t tell is, that before the whole resurrection by magical pulsating rock, he’s a thief on the streets who is forced to become a servant after being caught. (The alternative is death, so you can imagine he’s actually really into the first choice.)

This is how he gets involved with the scientists. Or scientist as it were. Dr. Vyne is the one who decides to pick him up as her servant at the prisoner auction (yes, really), and she’s pretty much the only scientists in this book. She and Hark have a fun dynamic, because she knows his BS and likes it, and he’s interested in some of her science-y stuff. Yeah, the summary is a bit vague and slightly inaccurate in my opinion. (Unraveller had the same problem now that I think about it.)

The Characters (are Great)

I actually really liked the main characters in the book. It’s too bad the summary basically only treated Hark and Jelt as the MCs, cuz that’s wrong.

Hark is the main character, it got that much right. He’s insecure, sassy, and has a very kind heart. He’s also the victim of emotional abuse, as implied above. A major part of his character arc is learning that being himself and not what someone else wants you to be is okay, and to learn to function without Jelt. He’s also the source of much of the humor in the book, which is nice after the darker, weirder parts. He’s a pretty great character.

Somehow Hark couldn’t slip or shoot off sideways and still pretend he was doing what Jelt wanted, the way he could with anyone else. I don’t want to anyway, he told himself firmly. Jelt is family. He knew better than to trust anything he told himself, though.

Jelt sucks. Also, he’s not much of a main character with how much he appears in the book. Still a major character, but on the spectrum closer to the “supporting characters” section. Anyway, he sucks and is a very not good person, who fully deserves everything that happens to him. His relationship with Hark is very sad, but as someone who has experience from Hark’s end, I feel it’s an accurate representation of an emotionally abusive one.

The REAL other main characters are Quest, an old priest who used to commune with the gods and is a veritable treasure trove of knowledge, and Selphin, the deaf daughter of a gang leader who’s probably the smartest person around. (The rep is great in here by the way.)

“You are still young,” Quest said phlegmatically. “You will find out who you are when your choices will test you. In the end, we are what we do and what we allow to be done.”

I absolutely loved Hark’s relationship with Quest. It really feels like a grandpa telling his grandson stories, and is probably the most wholesome thing in the novel. Hark and Selphin are also interesting in that they’re both very stubborn and butt heads quite often, but their hearts are usually in the right place.

The Setting (is Seriously Unique)

Hardinge really outdoes herself with the setting. I’m not surprised at all, after reading Unraveller, but you can really see that the way she does world building started here.

Like Unraveller, the setting here is truly unique, but instead of a weird, ambivalent forest, there’s a weird, ambivalent ocean. They both are unsettling, and they both do really weird things to people.

I think that Deeplight’s evil ocean (or “the undersea,” as the characters call it) is more disturbing, personally, but I won’t really get into why, cuz I would hate to spoil that for people.

The Story (is Compelling but Strange)

“Most things can be mended in time. Sometimes they are not quite the same as they were before they were broken, but nothing and nobody stays unchanged, anyway.”

Unlike Hardinge’s other work that I’ve read, I was immediately weirded out by Deeplight. I actually almost considered DNF-ing it, because of how off putting it made me feel, but ultimately decided to continue with it. And I’m glad I did. Even though it didn’t quite get four stars from me, it was still a very good book and I’m glad I read it.

Though the plot is strong, I would still say that it’s a more character driven story. The character evolution is also the most compelling part of the book. Though it didn’t make me emotional, it did make me feel things, so that’s a win to me.

The Deep-Sea Descriptions (are Creepy)

Okay, so the Lovecraftian-Subnautica devilspawn sea gods were disturbing. The unnatural descriptions and prose whenever Hardinge had a character describe them… very unsettling.

The way the undersea was described was also not-quite-right feeling. There was an uncanny-ness to the “godware” (the remains of the gods), and how it was repurposed to boost human technology kind of freaked me out.

Final Thoughts

There is always hope. There are always chances.

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge was an engaging, but unsettling, dark fantasy novel. I recommend it to everyone, except for those who hate/have a phobia of the deep ocean and deep sea creatures. Also, those who don’t like horror would probably not like this either. But otherwise… yeah.

Thanks for reading, and have a fabulous day/night! Join me next post for more bookish things!

See ya! ~ Mar

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