A famous childrens’ book author (I want to say it was A.A. Milne, but I can’t find the quote now to verify that) said that you can’t write down to children. That is, a book intended for young readers may have a simpler plot structure or be less explicit in discussing certain themes, but it shouldn’t be condescending. Kids and young adults may not have as much experience of the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or oblivious. Frances Hardinge has taken this advice to heart in her latest young adult novel, Deeplight.
This is most obvious in the way Hardinge portrays the relationship between the main character, Hark, and his best friend Jelt. They both grew up as orphans and quite literally relied on one another to survive. Those experiences have forged a bond as close as any blood relation. But at the same time, their relationship is toxic. Jelt repeatedly pressures Hark into taking on jobs that he’s not comfortable with on account of their danger, guilt-trips him whenever he objects to one of Jelt’s plans, and becomes resentful if Hark obtains something he lacks. It takes Hark most of the book to consciously acknowledge this. When he does, it’s cathartic but also sad, because it means losing a friendship that truly was meaningful to him. The complexity of this central relationship is something I hadn’t expected to encounter in a YA novel.
All of this is presented against the background of a fascinating, original setting. Hark’s home is a sprawling island chain called the Myriad. Its people once placated a collection of distinctly Lovecraftian gods who dwelled in an abyssal ocean level known as the Undersea. Thirty years before the start of the book, those gods turned on each other, literally tearing each other to pieces. The inhabitants of the Myriad have largely adjusted to the new, god-less world, but the developments of the novel threaten to turn their lives upside down again. Most of the action takes place on Hark’s home island of Lady’s Crave and the nearby Nest, but it’s clear that there’s a lot more out there, and I hope we get to see more of the Myriad in future books.
The characterization of Selphin is another strength of Deeplight. The teenaged daughter of a renowned smuggler, she gets entangled in Hark and Jelt’s latest adventure. She’s also deaf, the result of burst eardrums from an underwater accident. There are a number of people in the Myriad with a similar condition, and they’ve developed a form of sign language. I loved the way Hardinge shows Selphin’s emotions through her sign language. At one point, her signs are described as “angry stabs of motion;” at another, we’re told that she “threw up her hands, then hit the heels of her palms against her forehead in frustration.” It’s also nice to see that while Selphin’s disability obviously has a large impact on her life, it isn’t her only defining characteristic. She’s clever, brave, stubborn, and fiercely loyal, and all these traits are just as important as her deafness.
I don’t read YA often and had never heard of Hardinge before receiving a copy of Deeplight through NetGalley as part of the Hugo Awards voters’ packet. I enjoyed it enough that I’m looking forward to seeking out more of Hardinge’s work.