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The tl;dr – Daughter of the Merciful Deep is an atmospheric and powerful fantasy about the drowned Black towns of the American Deep South. The main character, Jane, is left mute after a horrifying experience, but she must now use her newfound magical abilities, as well as the gods, to save her town from a government that wants to drown the town by building a levy. Leslye Penelope explores themes of racism, community, family, and memory in this stunning book that is both dreamy and fiery. This is a Grade A historical fantasy that belongs on your TBR.

Cover of Daughter of the Merciful Deep

My full review:

Historically specific, deeply atmospheric, and viscerally powerful, Daughter of the Merciful Deep is a triumph of historical fantasy.

It is a crime that we do not get more stories like this one in mainstream fantasy publishing – a book that is both deeply personal and that also condemns the social inequalities that plague America’s history. This story moved me and wowed me in equal measure; it is a book that drew me in with its dreamy aesthetic, and also fired me up with its exploration of Black history and oppression.

Before continuing, I should note that I am reviewing this book from the position of a white reader, an important statement of position because one’s experience with this book will very much differ based on their racial position in society.

This is no more clear than the fact that Daughter of the Merciful Deep introduced me to a specific historical experience that I had no idea existed. I was not aware that there were drowned Black towns of the Deep South when white-dominated governments decided they need to build a new dam or levy; just another piece of history erased and (largely) forgotten by the dominant racial majority.

But it is not just this specific piece of history that drew me in, but a specific cultural experience. Throughout the book Leslye Penelope explores the complex cultural experience of the post-slavery African diaspora. She introduces us to a predominantly Black town that is Christian, and yet still has tie to African religions and rituals. This creates the basis for the story, as these African gods are still very much powerful, and our main characters need to navigate contradictory cultural worldviews, where they believe in the supreme Christian God (with a capital G) while also believing in, and now seeing and experiencing, these other deities that predate the Christianization of their ancestors. Penelope explores these culturally and historically specific beliefs and practices through the guise of a historical fantasy, and I hesitate to even call this book “fantasy” the more that I think on it.

In addition the historical events Penelope seeks to explore and condemn, this is also a book that explores community and family. Much of the book is set in one specific town (except when we get to explore the submerged worlds), and in a (relatively) short book Penelope creates this sense of place. The town comes alive, it feels populated, and it is a unique identity. As readers we feel a part of the town, and like we know this town, its inhabitants, and its politics. Penelope imbues the town with so much history and realness that at times I forgot that I wasn’t reading about actual people and actual events (rather than a story inspired by real events). The people we meet in this book have long-standing relationships, feuds, political grievances, and more.

No single relationship comes alive more than the one between the main character, Jane, and her sister Grace. This is a fraught relationship since Grace left town without as much as a goodbye a decade ago, and has now suddenly returned. When the book begins the interactions between Grace and Jane seems like a simple relationship between sisters who are no longer close, but as the book develops we get a much deeper sense of their relationship – what binds them together and what has torn them apart. It is one of the most complicated sibling relationships that I have read in fiction, and Penelope avoids over-simplifying the layered histories that siblings often share and how they bring those histories into adulthood.

Having said all of that, what I perhaps was drawn to most was Penelope’s exploration of memory and its importance to both our individual identities but also communal ones. The “magic system” (it feels VERY reductive to use that term here) is based on memories – a person needs to permanently give up a memory in order to use magic. Penelope uses this fantasy device to not only deepen her own characters – Jane has a major secret that slowly gets peeled back – but also the fact that these very real historical drowned towns were forgotten. Memories are important because they give us purpose and identity, and losing those memories (either through magic or through the tyranny of historical preservation) can re-create the fabric of society. I appreciate fantasy books where the “rule of cool” isn’t the main factor but instead the magic is being used to further the themes of the book. Penelope does this flawlessly.

I am curious to see how other readers respond to Jane as the main POV character. Because of an inciting incident, Jane is unable to speak (the most she can do is a hoarse whisper), and she relies on sign language. An unfair interpretation of her character is that she is a weak and broken protagonist until events force her agency, but I never got that impression. I was drawn into Jane’s imperfections and insecurities, and how she powered through even in the opening pages of the book. We don’t get to see many main characters like Jane. She is not “morally grey” and neither is she a Mary Sue, but a real, loving, and flawed human being.

I don’t often pick up historical fantasies like Daughter of the Merciful Deep, but whenever I find a great one (Lone Women by Victor LaValle should also be on your TBR for a more horror-tinged example) I kick myself for not reading more. This was a fantastic book that I am already eager to revisit now that I know all of its secrets and developments. This book is a stunner.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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