Nightpool by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
[Warning: Mention of rape]
Nightpool is an old school fantasy. This wasn’t a surprise. I mean, scroll up and look at that cover. Look at it! It’s glorious beyond words, but also exceptionally old school. If you went into this book expecting anything other than old school, you’d have to be a fool.
There’s a prince, wrongfully and cruelly denied his birthright.
There’s a princess locked in a tower.
There’s a traitorous second-in-command that seemingly has no reason to betray the king, and yet does.
There’s a great, ancient evil, total in its ... evilness. Evil without reason, without cause, without obvious benefit. Just 100% evil.
There’s the uncontested idea of royal sovereignty—the good guys would risk their life such that a 12 year old could retake the throne. That’s what makes them the good guys.
There are dragons. They sing, though, so she definitely took that traditional dragon down a very different path. There are water-dragons—aka, hydrus—with weird human-like faces. Another variation from traditional fantasy lore.
When you line up those elements like that, one could be forgiven for expecting this to be a simple old-school fantasy where boyhood prince grows up and slays the dragon, thus becoming king.
But it’s deeper, and stranger, than that.
Climate change is an inextricable part of the world-building. The importance of song in revolution and protest is underscored. Identity, tradition, and community are questioned.
Hard topics are trotted forward without second thought. For example, males born of the royal bloodline have a special mark that is important for the villain’s plans. Thus, the villain imprisons the princess in the tower to ‘breed’ her, once she’s old enough, so he can use the birthmark of the child to his advantage.
I normally hate rape as part of a story line, but something about it in this book feels ... subversive. There is no rape, first off, and second, the discussion of it is matter-of-fact and not even remotely sexualized. It feels like them trotting out a taboo subject, and refusing to pretend it doesn’t happen in real life.
All of these things might happen quickly, but they do happen. In a young-adult fantasy from the 1980s, that feels impressive to me.
Lest you think this book is all grit and hard truths, though, most the reader’s time is spent among the Ottra—a tribe of talking otters.
They juggle rocks, play in the tide, and, in their own otterly way, try to care for Teberiel, our disenfranchised young prince. I won’t go into detail here. The otters were the best part of the book. The first six pages were so damn cute that I had to take a break to breathe.
The otters weren’t the only amazing animals, though. A fleet of foxes made a happy impression on the book, and a few owls popped on by, as well.
I wish every aspect of Nightpool was written with the same tender care as the segments with animals in them, but alas, such is not the case.
The prose is often full of echo words and repetitive sentence structures. The back copy and the first ten pages of content make a story-telling promise the rest of the book doesn’t keep. The end of the novel goes a bit off the rails, like the author had too many ideas that she needed to fit into the last fifty pages. And, in this vein, a lot of the plot-advancement came through straight-up telling at the expense of immersion in the world.
None of these problems are even close to unique. I mean, modern best-sellers commit these writing sins, though, perhaps, not quite so many in the same book, and not so frequently. They’re easy mistakes to make, is all I’m saying.
In general, I found Nightpool to be a fun, quick romp, though the way the book turns erratic at the end makes me disinclined to track down the rest of the series. Still, Shirley Rousseau Murphy spins the story of Teberiel’s life with the otters masterfully, and if you’re in need of a quick dose of feel-good cutesiness, this isn’t a bad book to turn to. Just, maybe, skim when there’s no feathers or fur on-screen.
Cover art by Tim Hildebrandt