In a world very different from ours, two powerful factions fight for the throne. Alliances are made and shattered. Vows are sworn and broken. Brothers betray brothers; fathers betray sons; kings are imprisoned and queens make war. No, it’s not A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. It’s The Deep, by John Crowley, published in 1975.
The Deep is Crowley’s first novel. It is unlike his other works, although certain themes come back into play in the AEGYPT QUARTET. At first it seems like it is based on the Wars of the Roses, but Crowley has said in interviews that he was inspired by the short reign of King Edward II.
The Reds and the Blacks have fought over the crown for several generations. During the most recent skirmish, two endwives, who come after the battles to bury the dead and minister to the wounded, find a stranger. He is sexless, hairless, speechless, found next to a smooth man-high silver egg. He has been shot. They nurse him back to health and teach him their language. Meanwhile, the Reds imprison King Little Black, but his Outlander queen escapes with the help of her lover, Black Harrah. Before Black Harrah can join her, he is killed by one of the Just, a group of guerilla fighters who assassinate members of the Reds or the Blacks. While the society of this world is pre-industrial, the Just carry guns. The Just have names they have given their names, and their Guns are named also.
“Her name was Nyame and the name of her name was Nod. Her Gun’s name was Suddenly. She carried Suddenly in a pouch of oiled goatskin at her side, the kind watermen carry their belongings in, for she was a waterman’s daughter; that is, Nyame was. Nod was Just. Suddenly had said so.”
The Visitor, as he is called, becomes attached to the Red faction, becoming Redhand’s secretary. The Visitor believes that he was not born, but made, that he is in the nature of a machine, and that he has a mission, but he cannot remember what it is. Learned Redhand, who is a lawyer/scholar Gray, begins teaching him about the world. This world, Learned says, is flat, like a tray, held up by a pillar that is rooted in the Deep. There are 52 weeks in this world’s year, and each week has a name. Learned doesn’t know it, but the Just have a tale of a being who came to them long ago, neither male nor female, who carried a pack of fifty-two cards in one hand and Guns in the other. Later in the book, Learned muses over an old “heretical” riddle, wondering how the world could be populated from only 52 original people.
The Reds seize the crown, but the new King, Red Senlin’s Son, betrays Redhand, who flees to the Outlands, leaving his wife Carred under house arrest along with the new king’s heir, his brother Sennred. Red Senlin’s Son’s lover is Young Harrah, Black Harrah’s son. It appears that the feud is not over. It has just transmuted into nephew against uncle and brother against brother.
Against the backdrop of a brewing battle, the Visitor and Nod trek to the edge of the world, where the Visitor is sure he will find the answer to his identity and his mission.
The Deep has everything Crowley does well and will do brilliantly in future books. The prose is exquisite, laced with understated humor. Characters are defined and revealed by what they do and say. The plot is complex and sketched in economically. He writes strange and whimsical sentences like this one: “They came across a place where a fresh spring had come forth in the scum and decay, like a singer at a funeral.”
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There is a List of Principal Characters in the front, and it’s a good thing. I lost track of the number of times I flipped back to it, particularly with the Reds. There’s Redhand, Old Redhand, Young Redhand, Red Senlin, Red Senlin’s Son, and Sennred. I delight in Crowley’s playfulness with words and names, but this was just confusing. The explanation of the world covers the Reds, the Blacks, the Grays, The Just and the Folk, everyday people who are trying to live their lives around endless civil war, but doesn’t really explain the so-called Outlanders.
Although it didn’t bother me, there is also a question of just whose story this is. The book opens with native people discovering the Visitor, but for a while it appears to be his quest, as he struggles with two primary existential questions: “Who am I?” and “Why Am I Here?” Later though, the story seems to be about the Reds. Of course, in getting the answer to his questions, the Visitor answers them for the Reds and the Blacks as well, although they don’t know that.
The Deep holds up to some extent because of its sparseness. Loyalty and betrayal are always good topics for a novel, and if you like John Crowley, it’s worth reading. Not everyone dies; there is almost a happy ending. The strange flat world of the Red and the Blacks is about to change, for good.