Here is the premise of In Great Waters. It’s a hell of a premise so be prepared. In an alternate version of our world, mermaids and humans live side by side, connected by alliances like regular nations and by the existence of hybrids (bastards) who are half-mermaid and half-human. Such creatures have bifurcated tails and human reproductive organs; they can walk on land and hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes. They are also, by tradition, the rulers of Europe. In the sixteenth (I think) century, a hybrid child called Henry, cast up on land by his mother, is raised in secret as a rebel claimant to the throne of England. The bloodline of the deepsmen (mermaids) has become corrupted after many centuries of inbreeding, and the presumptive heir to the English throne is severely inbred to the point that he isn’t able to understand much of what goes on around him. Plotting, you understand, is afoot.
If Emma Donoghue, working off a plot outline by Megan Whalen Turner, were to write an alternate-history book set in the sixteenth? I’m guessing? century, about a world where mermaids were a crucial part of the political and military landscape, I expect it would come out a lot like In Great Waters. Half of the book is from Henry’s point of view, as he struggles to adapt to human life and understand human ideas; and the other half is from the point of view of one of the (uselessly female!) princesses of England, Anne, who is caught up among the many intrigues of the English court. The reader gets to see what the English court is like from the inside — Anne’s intelligent, formidable mother working tirelessly to preserve the throne for her daughters — and from the outside — Henry’s keepers struggling to find a way to put him on the throne before some other nation’s prince takes over the English throne.
Henry is not a character designed to be lovable. He is coldly manipulative of the men who take him in (though they, of course, are manipulating him too) and contemptuous of many human ideas and values that you most likely think a lot of. But although his values are not mine, he does have values, and one of the joys of the book is Henry’s developing ideas about what he believes and where he is willing to compromise. Very sensibly, Kit Whitfield gives him a friend, John, the son of one of Henry’s co-conspirators, which gives the reader a chance to see another side of Henry besides just the alien.
Meanwhile, Anne gets all the court intrigue, which of course makes her interesting to me. Anne has cultivated a reputation as a pious idiot, a sensible idea if you want not to be noticed, but problematic should a time arise when you want to be noticed. Just as it was fun to see Henry — a character who manages to be all agency in spite of his circumstances — discover his values, it was fun to see Anne — a character whose values and faith have been important to her all along — develop her agency as a political force to be reckoned with. Clare, who recommended this book a while ago, was a little disappointed by the anticlimactic ending; and although I was too, I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have done, because it was so great to see Anne taking care of business.
So yeah! That is In Great Waters. Historical fiction. With mermaids.