Rebirth Below the Waves in Leslye Penelope’s Daughter of the Merciful Deep

Books Reviews Leslye Penelope
Rebirth Below the Waves in Leslye Penelope’s Daughter of the Merciful Deep

Leslye Penelope’s excellent The Monsters We Defy marked her as an author to watch in the historical fantasy space. Her new novel, Daughter of the Merciful Deep, is another strong entry in that genre, set during a similar historical era in a very different region of the United States. While The Monsters We Defy is a strong, urban fantasy set during the Harlem Renaissance, Daughters of the Merciful Deep takes on the hidden history of America’s drowned Black towns, and the communities destroyed and dispersed in the name of progress.

Jane Edwards hasn’t spoken since she was eleven. She’s locked away a part of herself, along with her voice, following the mantra “never backward, only forwards”. It’s the motto of her beloved town, Awenasa, and it’s also the thing that keeps her from crumbling under the weight of a secret she’s been carrying for twelve years.

But Awenasa is in danger. White men from the Authority have come into town, telling people who own their land that they need to accept a sale offer from the government and move off the property. They’ve built a damn, and soon, the Noxahatchie, the river that borders the town, will cover everything the people of Awenasa have built. Their community is small, but caring, and it’s got plenty of thriving businesses that will have to start over elsewhere, separate from their neighbors and friends. Old George, who founded the town on land where he’d once been enslaved, is at his wits’ end; even if he takes everything the government says they’ll give him, it’s not enough to start over. It’s not enough to bring everyone with him.

Jane, who takes it upon herself to know everything that’s happening in Awenasa, isn’t sure what can be done. But she notices right away that the men from the Authority aren’t the only strangers in town. This second stranger, who calls himself Moses, is the spitting image of a man she once saw killed—the man her sister had planned to marry before he was convicted of murdering a white girl. And when Jane sees Moses perform feats that look like miracles, a tiny seed of hope begins to grow.

At least, it does until Moses tells her that saving the town will fall on her shoulders. Jane can’t bear the responsibility—she can’t even bear the thought of being the chairperson of a town celebration! So she enlists Daniel, her best friend (and maybe something more), to serve as the voice that people will listen to.

But Penelope isn’t content to let Jane stay in the shadows for long (as much as the character might prefer it). The story is all about bringing things into the light: secrets, relationships, love, and even faith. It’s about remembering lost things, about how to both honor the past and let it go, and about holding only the lessons to be learned from it rather than preserving specific moments. It’s also about ché, the energy that fills people with magical power, and how a community’s ché can be much greater than the sum of its parts.

While the plot of the story is largely contained—one small town, one big deadline—it twists unexpectedly several times, like uncontrolled eddies in an otherwise calm river. For example, Moses didn’t come to Awenasa to save the town; he came looking for someone in hiding. And there are much larger entities involved in Awenasa’s fate than the human characters who take center stage: Mama Yoja, Papa Loku, and other god-like figures also inhabit these pages.

Between chapters of Jane’s narration, a second voice offers stories in a folkloric tone, addressing the reader directly, weaving images of a magical island called New Ilé, where Mama Yoja rescued the dying or dead to give them a new life, restored. Penelope does a beautiful job allowing these larger-than-life figures to flow under the narrative, which is otherwise well-grounded in Jane’s specific moment in history—until, of course, magic (ché) unmoors Jane entirely.

Multiple love stories meander through the novel, not all of them of the romantic variety. Jane lost her mother as a child, and though she never looks back, she has also never stopped missing her. Jane also lost her sister, Grace, when the older girl left home to live her own life, leaving her sibling behind. Grace’s return, and how Jane navigates that rocky relationship, is central to her growing understanding of herself. (Romances are also present for both sisters, which play out naturally in a way that feels satisfying at the conclusion.) 

While Jane’s journey is central to the story, her ability to overcome her fears, embrace, and let go of the past is what truly drives the plot. But Daughter of the Merciful Deep is also about the power of community and the strength inherent in remembering where you came from. It’s about how voices raised together can do more than a single statement. (While Jane’s silence is intentional, she never feels voiceless. Her use of sign language and writing throughout the book show that she’s found plenty of ways to communicate and connect, even though she’s not initially able to overcome what stole her voice. Jane’s sign language never feels like a gimmick—at least to this speaking reviewer—and instead shows how much the community cares about each other, as most of the people in town make the effort to learn enough signs to be able to understand her.)

Ultimately, Daughter of the Merciful Deep is a novel about hope: a dream of a better world, a place where everyone can belong and be respected. While that dream may often seem out of reach—and there may be less magic in the real world to make it feel like a possibility—the idea that the future could hold something better than what has come before is a beautiful one. Characters have to work to achieve it, and then to make that future even better as they move forward, embracing the idea that it takes a community to shape the world into the dream they envision. It takes voices, raised together and unafraid to let themselves be heard, to plant the seed of change and grow it into something magnificent.

Daughter of the Merciful Deep is available now wherever books are sold. 

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.

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