“Far & Deep” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

IZ221 coverThis is how you trail a novel. “Far & Deep” shares a setting with, but is not extracted from (or is sufficiently well-adapted to stand apart from), Johnson’s Spirit Binders novels: an archipelago whose landscape and culture are seemingly extrapolated from those of various Pacific islands. Leilani’s mother, Pineki — once an elder and a diver, but an “infuriating, unheeding, raw, wild spirit” and stripped of both roles — has been murdered. Leilani is left to solve her mother, as much as her mother’s murder; and in the process to show us their home.

“Far & Deep” is not as firmly controlled as I wanted it to be; the stabs of emotion that punctuate the predominantly cool narrative tilt, a little too often, a little too close to melodrama for my taste. I don’t think the revelation of the world and the mystery are quite geared correctly; we don’t always learn about the possibility of a thing and the significance of a thing in the smoothest progression. And some of the description is curious:

The water slid around her body like the finest cloth from the inner islands — cool and supple. The water was not very deep here, and the sunlight penetrated straight to the coral floor. The mandagah were nowhere to be found at this time of day, but for sheer physical beauty nothing could match their island’s natural coral. It rose like a castle from the deep, built by some mad designer with a fetish for bright colours and retractable parts. A massive purple fan waved lazily beneath her until covered by her shadow. It vanished in a blink, leaving nothing but an unremarkable piece of porous grey stone behind.

“Retractable parts” doesn’t seem like a reference that would fall within Leilana’s experience, based on what we see of her island. That said, there is the suggestion, elsewhere in the story, that the “inner islands” are affecting Leilana’s home; the clearest example is cultural, but this could be a hint towards a higher technological level as well, though it still seems a little oddly placed to me.

All this is to carp, however. They are little criticisms. The busyness of the story — the many details of setting, the deft character portraits, a sense of events with forward momentum — the basic shape of it all — carries you over such details, on a first reading, and leaves you looking forward to Johnson’s next tale.

4 thoughts on ““Far & Deep” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

  1. Read this last night, too… and didn’t like it as much as you did. I think Alaya’s superbly talented, but this story felt small and scattered. I liked some of the quirks of the world-building and a few vivid images — Alaya’s images are always lovely.

    I’m wondering whether having read the novel first made this story less interesting for me, since I was already familiar with the diving and also with more vivid portrayals of these characters, which meant that I benefited less from surprise at the world and suffered more from a sense that the characters were receiving truncated, or possibly over-simplified, representations here, compared to in the novel.

  2. If it’s actually the same characters (I wasn’t sure how many, if any, overlapped), it wouldn’t surprise me if the story is thin in comparison to the novel, no. But it still felt like a quite unified piece to me — I remember it as a tone now, more than for specific details.

    (You have reminded me to add The Burning City to my books-to-read-in-2010 list. Of course I have to read Racing the Dark as well, but I’m sure that won’t be a hardship…)

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