Thank you to Saga Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press
Release date: November 5th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Ocean Setting (HM), Afrofuturism (HM), Published 2019, #OwnVoices
“We grow anxious and restless without you, my child. One can only go for so long without asking, who am I? Where do I come from? What does all this mean? What is being? What came before me, and what might come after? Without answers, there is only a hole, a hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities. You don’t know what it’s like, blessed with the rememberings as you are,” said Amaba.
The Deep is a compelling novella focused on the importance of history as a part of cultural identity, specifically within the black community. This short tale is focused, coherent, and was written to convey its message clearly and concisely: even if the past is painful and full of trauma, it is key to understanding our modern identity both as individuals and as a larger cultural group. Our past leaves an indelible imprint on our present.
The premise of the book is rooted in the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade, viewed through a surprisingly optimistic lens. Where the slave trade caused irreparable harm, new opportunities for community and identity have been born. The wajinru, a mermaid-like race living in the sea, are the sea-born offspring of pregnant black slaves who have been tossed over the side of slave ships to die. The wajinru live with the opportunity to live a life grounded not in their past, but rather in the present: each of the wajinru is possessed of a memory that blanks out the pain of the past. Yetu, however, is the exception to this. She is the wajinru’s Historian, who holds all the generational memories that are too painful for her culture as a whole to hold. They overwhelm her, subsume her, until she simply can’t take it any longer. The past begins to blur with the present, and the imbalance between the two is too much for anyone to handle.
However, the wajinru who don’t have Yetu’s connection to the History still need a taste of it to ground them to who they are. Every year, they come together for a telling of the History across three days. It is experienced with all the senses, it is lived. The Historian passes the History out away from herself, such that she might finally have a moment of peace while the rest of her people experience the memories she held in trust. This is both the best part of Yetu’s life and the hardest: it gives her a chance to breathe without the weight of her ancestors, yet the energy needed to guide the other wajinru through the remembering is immense.
Yetu knew what they would do. First, seize her. Next, gut her mind. Last, fill her empty shell with ancestors and pretend they hadn’t just murdered Yetu by forcing her to endure these memories endlessly for another year. The thought of it made her shake. This time, she wouldn’t emerge from it. There would be no Yetu left for the next Remembrance. She’d be dead. Yetu wouldn’t let them do it.
When Yetu refuses to take the memories back from her people during the remembering, she undertakes a journey to find out who she is on her own. She meets the humans who are her ancestors, finds both kindness and heartbreak. Without the memories, she initially believes herself to finally be whole once more. There is space for her, without thousands of voices clamoring to be heard inside of her.
“I know who I am now. All I knew before was who they were, who they wanted me to be,” said Yetu. “And it was killing me. It did kill me. I wasn’t Yetu. I was just a shell for their whims.”
Oori shook her head and stood up from the water. “But your whole history. Your ancestry. That’s who you are.”
“No. I am who I am now. Before, I was no one.”
As she does this, the wajinru she’s left behind create their own storm. In facing the rememberings without guidance, they find that they are not prepared to understand their origins on their own. Their anger at the way they have been treated comes to the forefront, and the ocean responds to their fear and hatred. Yetu is faced with a choice: she must leave the wajinru to sink the world and retain her own personhood, or she must take on the Histories once more to prevent the collapse of the world as she knows it.
Although I loved the themes and premise of this book, the one thing that didn’t work well for me was the prose. It was often too distant for me to truly connect to either the atmosphere or to the characters themselves. I appreciate novellas for their ability to convey big concepts in small spaces, but this seemed like a book that suffered for the length; these characters and ideas could have been teased out into a much stronger novel-length book with greater focus on imagery, description, and characters. As it was, it was simply too laser-focused on the narrative and ideas for me to be completely drawn in the way I prefer. The characters didn’t have a chance to grow and acquire quite as much nuance as I had hoped.
Nevertheless, this is an incredibly culturally significant novella. Too often, these are actual voices and actual histories which are glossed over and erased. Fantasy is a powerful genre to bring these back to the forefront, and I love seeing this done effectively – especially in formats such as novellas which are typically more challenging to break into. Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes have all come together to raise their voices in this short yet poignant work.
Recommended for fans of:
- Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- The Warehouse by Rob Hart
- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Let me know in the comments below!