Cuttlefish: Interesting world-building carries this submarine adventure

fantasy book reviews Dave Freer Cuttlefish

Dave Freer Cuttlefish fantasy book reviewsCuttlefish by Dave Freer

It’s 1953 in a world where the British Empire never collapsed, the first World War lasted one year, and the second never happened. England commands a global, coal-fueled empire and has hastened rapid global warming. London, like Venice, is a city of canals. Irish rebels and “London undergrounders” wage a guerilla revolution against the crown. This is the world of Dave Freer’s YA submarine adventure Cuttlefish.

Tim Barnabas is a young crewman on the coal-powered submarine Cuttlefish. Clara Calland is the daughter of an imprisoned Irish rebel and a prominent chemist. Mary, her mother, has discovered a chemical process that will shift the balance of power in the world. She and Clara are smuggled aboard the Cuttlefish, headed for America, and the chase is on.

The villain is Malcolm, Duke of Leinstar, the half-brother of the British Monarch and head of the empires Intelligence services. The Duke is a stock villain, not overly complicated, but his web of espionage adds suspense to the story.

The description of the submarine is delightful. Freer lavishes detail on the engine room with its compressors and batteries as well as the main Stirling engines. When the boat is on the surface, it uses outriggers and diaphanous gossamer sails. The first third of the book contains a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase through the Shetland Isles. After that, it becomes a bit more of an epidsodic travelogue. The Cuttlefish faces mechanical problems, technological attacks and interpersonal attacks. The pace becomes a fast canter, and never changes, so that an abduction attempt near the end feels like the real climax of the book, rather than the Cuttlefish’s desperate run to the independent Australian republic of Westralia that happens at the end.

Tim and Clara in particular are engaging characters. Tim is brave and unsure, finding his way on the submarine. He comes from the tunnels in London, and his dark skin makes him the target of racist comments and rough treatment from some crew members. Clara has some trouble adjusting from being a “young lady” to a rebel on the run. She is smart and inventive. One of my favorite moments is when she builds a crystal set in order to track the radio signals from the spy on board. She not only helps uncover the spy but makes a discovery that comes into play later in the book. The boat’s captain and first mate are well-drawn and so is Mary Calland, Clara’s mother, although she doesn’t deviate much from being a typical bossy mom. The Duke is the biggest disappointment in this area. He’s smart and apparently competent, but stereotypically arrogant and cold. The most interesting thing about him is his relationship to his two royal half-brothers, Ernst and Albert.

The results of rapid global warming, like the Big Melt – loss of the polar ice caps—inform the geographical and political changes that make the story work. Freer uses it well without being preachy. While I had trouble with the pacing, Cuttlefish was a thoroughly enjoyable read and if the young adult in your household is reading it, it would be pretty fun to use a map-app or even and old-school globe to track the route of the Cuttlefish’s adventure. Tim and Clara are appealing, heroic young people who are worth a few hours of your time.
Cuttlefish — (2012) Publisher: The smallest thing can change the path of history. The year is 1976, and the British Empire still spans the globe. Coal drives the world, and the smog of it hangs thick over the canals of London. Clara Calland is on the run. Hunted, along with her scientist mother, by Menshevik spies and Imperial soldiers, they flee Ireland for London. They must escape airships, treachery, and capture. Under flooded London’s canals, they join the rebels who live in the dank tunnels there. Tim Barnabas is one of the underpeople, born to the secret town of drowned London, place of anti-imperialist republicans and Irish rebels, part of the Liberty — the people who would see a return to older values and free elections. Seeing no farther than his next meal, Tim has hired on as a submariner on the Cuttlefish, a coal-fired submarine that runs smuggled cargoes beneath the steamship patrols, to the fortress America and beyond. When the Imperial soldiery comes ravening, Clara and her mother are forced to flee aboard the Cuttlefish. Hunted like beasts, the submarine and her crew must undertake a desperate voyage across the world, from the Faeroes to the Caribbean and finally across the Pacific to find safety. But only Clara and Tim Barnabas can steer them past treachery and disaster, to freedom in Westralia. Carried with them — a lost scientific secret that threatens the very heart of Imperial power.

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

3 comments

  1. I felt pretty much just as you did – decent characters, decent story but not wow! that is good!

    I think the Cuttlefish itself was the best character in the story.

    • I loved the Cuttlefish!

      I just finished an Advanced Reader Copy of the second book, The Steam Mole, and enjoyed it even more.

  2. April V. /

    I didn’t know that one was coming, I’ll have to search it out.

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