Deepest Blue by Mindy Tarquini

I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company SparkPress in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Deepest Blue is a dreamy, magical novel that has a lot of interesting concepts, which were unfortunately not carried out as well as they could be.

The book is set in Panduri, an Italian-esque magical city-state. Panduri is something like a traditional Faerie kingdom: the inhabitants have sprites, who they pay in sweets, to carry messages; they shine rainbows on newborns for a bit of extra happiness (and have no interest in the gold that slides down it as well); and their destinies are mapped in the stars by Panduri’s ruler, the Duca.

Matteo is the second son of the Duca and the destiny mapped for him is as one of the city’s Protectors. He is meant to serve at the border between Panduri and the Outside, a destiny he is looking forward to. However, his older brother Antonio, the Heir to the Duca, is determined to defy his fate; he takes Matteo’s place at the border instead and sets Matteo up to plot the star charts in his stead. This rebellion ultimately sends the two of them, and the rest of their family as well, spinning off-course.

To be honest, I’m struggling a bit with what to say about the book. I think a large part of what’s interesting about it is finding out how the world works, and most of the intrigue lies in discovering what the character’s motivations are. What is “star casting” exactly and can the inhabitants of Panduri defy their fate? What is the “Outside” — and will Matteo’s two little brothers, who left for the Outside years ago, ever return? What are Antonio’s actual goals? You’re thrown into the deep end with little context given and have to piece it all together as you go on.

Unfortunately, for me, the deep end felt a little too deep and the book tipped from “interesting and mysterious” to “frustratingly opaque”. Around 25% in, things more-or-less clicked. That’s a long time to feel hopelessly confused though. However, after finishing, I found out the ARC was unfortunately very oddly formatted: e.g. having dialogue from several characters in one paragraph, making it difficult to tell who’s speaking. While reading I genuinely thought this was just an extremely odd “poetic” writing choice! I can’t change my impression, but while the book does throw you into the deep end, reading the final version may prove a bit less confusing than it was for me.

It’s a real shame that the delivery is muddled, because there’s a lot to enjoy, particularly in the setting. Panduri is a very magical city, of the soft, folklore type. The land itself responds to the Duca, with hedgerows trembling when he’s angry; the Duca’s wife may set extra stars in the sky for Panduri’s Midsummer celebrations. If you receive a gift, give something in return if you don’t want problems; if you made a promise, taking the words back requires a fair amount of delicate handling. All inhabitants are bound by the Deep Lore, something between religion, tradition, and fate. One of the lessons taught in Panduri’s monastery is, Fuck with the Deep Lore, the Deep Lore fucks back. That is, the Heir denying his stars is not only a succession crisis, but more importantly results in actual earthquakes.

At its core, the story centres around a large, deeply troubled family. They talk past each other, accidentally hurt each other, and then lash out on purpose. The two brothers that ran away leave a large hole in their wake, and Antonio’s actions only widen it. Grief over missing loved ones and guilt over missed connections or misunderstandings are major themes. I think this may be a book that really benefits from a reread, as a lot of the characters’ actions only fully make sense near the end. However, I was disappointed in how the female characters are side-lined. They basically slot into the role of “loving mother”, “loving wife (who soon becomes a loving mother)”, and “loving sister (who also spends most of her time being a loving mother)”; none are given much to do in comparison to the male family members.

The book’s writing really contributes to its folktale-like atmosphere. The language is relatively ornate, with lots of dreamy metaphors — which may not always be metaphors of course, with how Panduri’s magic works. (In amusing contrast, half the characters swear happily and often; e.g. the traditional Fuck with the Deep Lore… saying.) I particularly enjoyed that a lot of descriptions, especially of the talented violin-playing Antonio, are given via music, e.g. His tempo slowed to an adagio. On the other hand, that folktale-ness also makes it more difficult to connect emotionally to the characters. (That, and their motivations are purposefully opaque for most of the book.) This is not helped by the book covering about a decade(?)-worth of time: at some point it feels like everything’s hurtling past and there’s no time for in-depth emotional reactions, even to great personal tragedy. Ultimately, I think I felt more sadness based on the “facts” of the family’s misfortunes than on the “empathy through writing” level, if that makes sense.

Altogether, I think there’s a lot of interesting and delightful things about Deepest Blue, in particular for anyone who, like me, enjoys traditional “folktale”-like magic. However, for me the actual execution of the book unfortunately didn’t live up to its premise.

I recommend this book for:

  • Fans of soft magic systems
  • Fans of Fae/Faerie
  • People interested in Italian-influenced fantasy
  • People interested in themes of loss/grief, especially in a family context

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