Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
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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?
Deeplight is a truly classic example of Frances Hardinge’s work.
Blending the deeply unsettling with younger YA characters bursting with heart and uncertainty, this book is a perfect example of Hardinge’s mastery over the written word. She excels at making outlandish, weird concepts into something with a deeply personal flair, and Deeplight is no expection. Following Hark, a 15 year-old boy, as he tries to set his life right while also looking out for his best friend, Deeplight pits humans against gods and explores the nature of fear in all its forms.
“You cannot justify an atrocity with mathematics.”
At the core of Deeplight is the fear that surrounds the Myriad, the string of islands where Hark’s story takes place. Fear is the fuel of the gods that live in the depths, the very essence of their being and their destruction. It guides action after action across the Myriad, for better or for worse, and with it comes an equally pervasive sense of wonder. Hark’s word for this is “frecht,” and it means something that is beautiful in its terrible, frightening majesty. The gods are frecht in their towering horror. The daughter of a Myriad crime boss is frecht in her wildness. And Hark’s friend is frecht, even when Hark doesn’t use the word.
It’s amazing to see this book gently turn fear inside out, exploring all the nooks and crannies it creates in the characters. What they fear and the lengths they’re willing to go to avoid the worst of their fears are endlessly fascinating subjects, and some have far wider repercussions than others. And more than that, Deeplight actually addresses the consequences of these actions. We learn what probably would have come to pass if certain characters didn’t make the choices they did, and more than that, we understand their actions even if they’re difficult to forgive.
If nothing else, this is a story that reminds us of all the pitfalls of being human, and what makes a monster rather than a man.
Each character is a power of their own.
The humans in this book may not have enormous, island-destroying power as individuals, but they each wield themselves with a small power, one incredibly effective in the right circumstances. Even side characters who don’t feature often on the main page, like Rigg, stand out for their strength of character. Hark and Jelt, of course, take up much of the attention, the former for his story-telling prowess and the compassion he tries so hard to hide, the latter for his steady, ruthless demeanor, but I also adored Selphin. Not quite a main character, she still cuts a powerful figure in her determination not to lead a short and wasteful life. I especially loved that she fought back against Rigg’s idea that her fear needed to be “fixed.” Fear and disability are not things that require fixing, and it is not anyone’s business to determine that but the single person in question.
Deeplight also takes the time to feature deaf characters in a regular and positive light. As I am not deaf, I cannot speak to the overall quality of the representation at hand. That is not my judgment to make. However, Frances Hardinge’s acknowledgements make it clear she spoke to deaf individuals, especially deaf children, and on the page, she never frames deafness as some terrible fate. Hearing characters often know sign language, and social norms in the Myriad include asking deaf individuals if they’d like to have a conversation in sign language, or vocally, for those that can lipread or still hear in part.
Overall, Deeplight is a steady dive into the darker corners of human nature, with a shining glimpse of the light.
Admittedly a bit slow-paced, as Hardinge books tend to be, it’s nonetheless a strong, steady work, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! The sea-drenched atmosphere flickers with the sense of something menacing grasping at its edges, and each character stands out as a bright spark in landscapes that are otherwise dreary or at least plain.
If you have the patience for a slower read, or need something that explores all the strangest mysteries of the ocean, Deeplight may be for you! And even better, it’ll look great on your shelves, no matter what copy you get. The US cover is a gorgeous teal, but the UK cover boasts beautiful illustrations I personally can’t help but covet. 💙🐙
CW: violence, gore, suicide, slavery, body horror, self-harm mention, addiction