I’ve been hearing a lot of good about The Deep–Rivers Solomon’s novella, inspired by the song of the same name from the experimental hip hop group clipping.–ever since its release in 2019. And with it being spotlighted this month in one of r/Fantasy’s many book clubs, I finally decided to take the plunge.
The Deep tells the story of the wajinru–a society of merfolk descended from pregnant women thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade–while at the same time telling the story of their historian Yetu. Because the history of the wajinru is so painful, they cultivate short memories, allowing them to live in the moment while outsourcing their history to a single member of their society. Once a year, they gather to hear from the Historian, keeping them grounded as a people without forcing every member of their society to continually bear the weight of their past. But for Yetu, their current Historian, stewarding the history of her race is too great a weight, and she yearns to discharge the burden. Our story follows Yetu as she fights to be free from her people’s history and to find herself as an individual, intertwining stories from the wajinru’s past.
That’s a lot of story for a novella, I’m not sure Solomon quite succeeds in packing it all in, but the parts that work are truly tremendous. The Deep immediately sucked me in with a tight personal focus on Yetu as she approaches her breaking point. She’s erratic and unreliable and, as the sole Historian in her society, has no one else to lean on. We can see how she irritates the other waijinru, but they can’t see the turmoil that has led her to this position. And as the novella progresses, the excellent character introduction is supplemented by enthralling and lyrical tales from her people’s past–a powerful whirlwind of worldbuilding and emotional struggle.
But after Yetu reaches her breaking point and comes out the other side, the story slows as she tries to learn her place in the world and build a sense of self. Here, she first encounters people from outside her race and builds a relationship with one as she seeks to understand herself both as an individual and as one of the waijinru. This stretch of narrative allows the reader to catch their breath a bit, but Yetu’s internal and relational growth just isn’t as compelling as her character introduction–she doesn’t become cliched or two-dimensional, but it feels like there’s only one way her story can go, and the journey is interesting but not enthralling.
The story closes with another whirlwind, but one that’s more chaotic than powerful. There are allusions throughout the novella to a war between humans and waijinru, but when the flashback finally comes, it feels rushed and disconnected from the rest of the novella. The present-day story of Yetu and her fellow waijinru closes quickly, but in a way that feels entirely earned by the preceding action. But the war flashback comes and goes in an instant and doesn’t impact the present-day story to a degree that justifies its prominent place in the narrative–it feels like it should’ve been a short story in the same world instead of a part of the novella.
Overall, Yetu’s story is well-done–especially at the beginning–and The Deep’s rich and evocative worldbuilding feels like it has room for more stories. But the narrative tries to do so much in such limited space that it isn’t able to carry the opening strength through to the end. There’s a lot of good here, and it’s worth reading for the strengths, but ultimately it falls a bit short of its sky-high potential.
Recommended if you like: high-quality worldbuilding, stories about working through trauma.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.