Daedalus and the Deep by Matt Willis – Advance Review [Bellarius]


Taking another look at historical fantasy tales, this time at sea, Bellarius sees how Mat Willis’ first fictional outing stands up with Daedalus and the Deep.

“A decent tale which masterfully merges historical accuracy with exciting fantasy.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields

One of a number of books with significant fantasy elements in the manner of The Thousand Names, Daedalus and the Deep is a fantasy tale which cloaks itself with genuine knowledge and information of the age. Once the feeling of realism and accuracy is established, it only then proceeds to introduce ideas of a more fantastical world.

Based around the reports of the real HMS Daedalus which reported sightings of a sea serpent in 1848, the tale follows the crew in their efforts to find the creature. Having replaced her dead brother and disguised herself, we see events largely unfold through the eyes of Midshipman Colyer as a driven, half mad captain hunts down the serpent. Abandoning their task to destroy slaver vessels and piracy across the South China Sea, the ship charges after the monster in the name of scientific progress and personal glory. However, the serpent is no dumb beast and it soon becomes clear it has an agenda of its own…

For those already wondering from that brief description, no it’s not a Moby Dick story. Well, not entirely. While certain aspects remain such as the captain’s determination clashing with that of the crew, there is no generic “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!” moment. It dodges most of the potholes which would draw direct comparisons, leaving it only with the general archetype of the tale. A move definitely for the better as it allows it to exist as its own entity, sticking mostly to its own strengths rather than simply aping famous elements of a major piece of literary history. That said, the books do share certain strengths. Chief among these is the author’s in depth knowledge of sailing of the era and descriptions of manning vessels of this time.

While not reaching Hornblower levels of technical jargon, or having vast pages of information purely about sailing such vessels, it’s inserted into the prose. Worked around the characters themselves allowing for the story to continually progress and establishment of the protagonist as the reader is given an idea of the world. It goes a considerable way to building up a sense of realism and being a genuine tale before finally moving into the fantastical elements, making them seem just as out of place as they should do in such a story. That said, while the reactions of the crew are understandable given the time, they seem a little too accepting of the creature’s existence. Upon seeing it there is no questioning how it might live and very quickly accepting such a monster of legend sails the seas. It would have been interesting to see more disbelief given the growing scientific progress of the era.

Their determination to hunt down the serpent quickly becomes the dominating plotline within the story, but it’s also handled well. The crew do not simply rush after the monster and instead we see them considering how to bait it out, looking through previous accounts to see if other ships have deal with such a creature and preparing to fight it. They are smart in their pursuit, and it’s definitely a nice change to see a driven figure beginning by thinking about their actions and planning their pursuit.

What makes the story much more unique is the fact the serpent itself is shown to be highly intelligent and, surprisingly, possessing a degree of sentience. Brief sections give some insight into its mind and see why it is continually fighting the ship, learning from it one small moment at a time. What makes this interesting is that, while these sections are brief, we see it never recognising that the Daedalus is an artificial vessel, instead thinking it as some sort of rival seagoing creature. Unfortunately, while this goes some way to building upon the serpent’s alien nature, this is undermined by the glimpses of an all too human society and drives for power. The conclusion and beginning to the serpent’s story really weaken it despite the strengths of its middle sections.

In fact that goes for the book as a whole. It’s only a few chapters in that the story really begins to construct an idea of the setting or imagery within the reader’s mind, with the chapter introducing Colyer not doing a very good job of introducing the character. We see that she has courage yes, but it’s only later on we are given a real impression of her character and the sudden jump into violent action is simply a jarring beginning.  There needed to be more of a build-up and more effort to ease the author into the story with the humans than a sudden engagement like the one we are introduced to. The conclusion doesn’t help either, with the story almost feeling as if it just comes to a sharp stop rather than drawing to a close. Beyond Colyer herself there’s not much to be said for what happens to the other human characters. Then again, they’re mostly background figures anyway, even if there is a great many of them.

The final flaw of real note is the lack of “beats” within the tale. Major events and reveals just often lack the punch they would have within other books and often you’re left feeling they’ve been underplayed. There are no grand descriptions of the serpent when it is first seen or a true build-up which gives impact to its appearance. Similarly, a few other major events simply lack the emotive and detailed descriptions which would make them feel meaningful to the story. These can likely be put down in part to the extremely short nature of the book’s chapters, which are only five to seven pages long on average.

Ultimately Daedalus and the Deep isn’t bad but it will likely appeal to those after some light reading. It’s more the sort of thing you’d read on the train to work or in short breaks, with both its focus upon a handful of single characters and short nature. That’s not a mark against the book, simply that it’s better suited to bursts rather than lengthy reads.

Those with an interest in flintlock fantasy steeped in realism, or enjoy a well-researched fictional tale, will definitely get a kick out of looking at this one. As will those looking for a good seagoing tale set in the mid eighteenth century or a vengeful hunting tale which dodges a few of the more tired tropes surrounding obsessive captains. So, look it up if you think this one sounds interesting.

Daedalus and the Deep will be released tomorrow and can be found on Amazon.com.

Verdict: 4.8/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
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