Reviewed by D.M. Kiely
Gallery/Saga Press 176 pp.
Like its aquatic main characters, “The Deep” has a rather complicated history. The idea of an undersea world populated by the mutated children of drowned, pregnant slave women first surfaced as the backstory for the album, “Harnessed the Storm,” the first in a series of seven linked concept albums by Detroit-based electronic duo Drexciya (William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes). Inspired by the tidbits of lore revealed about the album’s lyric-less techno-soundscapes, rapper Daveed Diggs, as part of his experimental hip-hop group, clipping., released a single that further expanded on the world. This single, “The Deep” would go on to be nominated for the 2018 Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). Upon hearing it, Saga Press Senior Editor Navah Wolfe immediately sought out author Rivers Solomon, fresh from her debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and commissioned the award-winning novelist for the complex task of transmuting a song into a novel. In 2019 that novel was released, along with a trio of songs by clipping. that further expand upon its world.
The novel grants its readers a look not only at a unique interpretation of one of fantasy’s classic races, but into the deeply troubled mind of a member of that species. For centuries the wajinru, who call themselves the Chorus of the Deep (though a two-legged surface dweller might be tempted to describe them as mermaids), have lived a carefree life, hunting and mating as the needs take them. But they are only allowed this freedom due to the sacrifices of each generation’s Historian, the one member of their race who acts as the repository of their ancestral memory à la Lois Lowry’s dystopian work, “The Giver.”
The novel opens with the attempted suicide of the fourth Historian. A troubled girl chosen for the role before she reached adulthood, Yetu has come to feel that the memories of her ancestors have consumed all that could have been her, that in truth there is no Yetu, only the Historian, the vessel of her people’s pain: “The wajinru inside her from the past had pulled her backward, and the wajinru around her had pulled her outward toward their various ends. The combating forces had stretched her so far this way and that way that she had lost her shape. If she had a will of her own, she was too deflated to actually exercise it.” After a failed suicide attempt, Yetu tries a different tactic to relieve herself of the pain and sufferings of the generations before her, and, at the yearly gathering of her people, she releases the memories equally among all the members of her tribe and flees. The wajinru are left panicked and maddened by this sudden flood of knowledge and quickly descend into a vengeful mob dangerous not only to those who wronged them in the past, but to themselves.
Meanwhile, giddy and frenzied by her newfound freedom, Yetu accidentally beaches herself on an island, where she is promptly discovered by a tribe of her people’s land-dwelling cousins. The first of these is the nervous Suka, who feeds and heals the wounded Yetu, but more important is the huntress and fisherwoman Oori, a cynical but kind-hearted loner who quickly fascinates the self-exiled wajinru. Oori is someone who “doesn’t take kindly doesn’t take kindly to requests or demands on her time…Yetu found the quality fascinating. She wanted to be a person who didn’t take kindly to requests, who knew her own mind. Maybe if she’d had a stronger will, she’d have been able to resist the pull of the ancestors, able to carry the History without so much grief.”
Along with the story of Yetu’s growing friendships with the humans who saved her, we are also privy to the stories of the previous generations of Historian. The tradition begins with Zoti Aleyu, the first of their kind to awaken, the first to have her heart broken in romance with a human, and eventually the first to seek out others to form into a great tribe. It ends with Basha, Yetu’s predecessor, and in recalling the horrors of her mentor’s life Yetu comes to realize why the humans she encounters live in isolated tribes and sail on wooden rafts rather than the vast cities and poison-spewing iron ships Basha knew of in his youth. At last, she realizes the danger her people pose to the people of the surface, a danger she reawakened in restoring their ancestral memories.
We also hear the songs of the Chorus of the Deep. One part psychic hivemind, one part rioting mob, one part frenzied swarm of clawed hands and gnashing teeth, this is what becomes of the wajinru when all are forced to acknowledge their people’s bitter origins and past sins. It is the voice of the legion, and it sings a song of war. And hunger. “How long has it been tonight? Lost in the endless madness of the Remembrance, we all starve, unable to nurture our bodies. Our bodies wane but our minds swell with pains too large to contain. Such imbalances cannot last.” The chorus cries out in a psychic storm of pain and wrath at the surface world and transforms the ocean from the vast, mysterious and beautiful home of the wanjiru and countless other forms of life into a weapon.
“The Deep” packs a variety of genres and morals into its novella-sized package. It is at once a condemnation of environmental destruction, a meditation on slavery and its long-lasting impact on the descendants of displaced African peoples across the globe, a harrowing fantasy epic of hate and war, and a gentle, nervous love story.
For the most part, this genre-blending works out well, appearing more in deeper themes than in surface content. But a more distracting combination manages to seep into the story on occasion. The novel never seems quite sure whether it wants to be science fiction or fantasy. In the beginning, we have plausible descriptions of wajinru biology, and even the telepathic songs and electricity-harnessing attacks of the Chorus seem more akin to the biological abilities of whales and electric eels than anything mystical. A reader who had not first heard Daveed Diggs’ song explaining the core concept might instead be reminded of the 2012 Animal Planet docufiction series “Mermaids: The Body Found,” and be left to assume that the wajinru were some sort of naturally evolving aquatic offshoot of early humanity. It is only late in the book that their mystical origins are made clear: they are the descendants of pregnant African women cast from slave ships to drown, their fetuses blessed by the sea and mutated into their current aquatic form.
This confusion also appears in the prose on rare occasions, with Yetu speaking of the ocean’s will as though of a goddess on one page, then mentioning an advanced scientific concept on the next. For instance, when Yetu first speaks to a surface dweller she notes: “[They held] out their hands to placate her. She recognized the same gesture as one her amaba (parent) did sometimes. Was such a thing passed down in DNA?” It’s a fairly minor blip, but it does put a small crack in a reader’s suspension of disbelief to picture the tribal wajinru, who elsewhere describe a submarine as a “metal fish” with a “spinning back fin,” having advanced knowledge of genetics. The word “bloodline” would have gotten the same point across, and would have melded better with the prose around it.
However, once the reader has sorted out the nature of the world in their head, it becomes a truly fascinating and unique place to explore, and the raw emotions of the story more than make up for any confusion in the setting. We feel the burden of Yetu’s role as the one member of her race unable to enjoy their hedonistic, “living in the moment” life-style. We grapple with hate against the surface-dwellers, who ruin their world while leering hungrily at the wajinru. We see the results of that hate, the great sorrow that violence brings down upon both peoples. All of this flows through the novella in the clear voice of Rivers Solomon, leaving the reader with a deeper understanding of the responsibility of both Historians and historians and wondrous dreams of a fantastic undersea world.
D.M. Kiely is a graduate student at the University of Central Florida, and a veteran of the United States Navy. He is obsessed with dogs and tabletop games in equal measure and is a member of the proud Orlando community.