(2012) Dave Freer, Pyr, £16.95, hrdbk, 295pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14625-2
Dave Freer sounds like an interesting guy. He is an ichthyologist by trade who lives on an island between Australia and Tasmania who has been a shark scientist and a chef at luxury game lodges. As a writer he’s co-authored novels with Eric Flint, and also with Flint and Mercedes Lackey, as well as penning a few books by himself. If there is any justice “Cuttlefish” will give him a wider audience.
Here, we are in an alternative world, a steampunk world. Unlike some writers who merely have a steam-powered this, or a clockwork driven that (and hands up, I have been guilty of those crimes), Freer has obviously put some thought into his world building, and the plausibility of his central conceit, namely the steam-powered submarine called 'Cuttlefish', which is actually three vessels in one- a submarine, a ship that sails on the surface of the sea that is powered by coal and a hydrofoil driven by wind power. After the narrative ends, there is a handy glossary of terms which helps the reader find their way around the innards of a submarine that can be consulted when reading. There is also a little essay on how the Cuttlefish actually works, followed by a slightly longer essay as to how this alternative world came about and why this world is so different from the one we know. Freer does not go overboard on this, his world simply boils down to some relationships that didn’t work out, and some scientific discoveries not being made, oh, and there been no World War One, which because it hasn’t happened, hasn’t decimated huge swathes of the population. Therefore Britain rules the waves and almost everything else thanks to a steam-driven Empire, and London has been largely underwater since the 1940s due to the Big Melt and the world is running down because coal is become harder to find and more expensive to extract.
Enter Clara Calland, or rather her seemingly boring scientist mother who may have the solution to everyone’s problems, and therefore everyone wants her, especially the Russians or the British, and if they cannot have her, they want to kill her to prevent her and her invention falling into the hands of another country. Soon a bewildered Clara is on the run following her mother through a series of adventures before joining up with the crew of the coal-fired submarine known as the 'Cuttlefish' which dodges the British navy to smuggle cargo to America and back. On board, Clara will encounter Tim Barnabas who is an underperson, raised in the tunnels below a drowned London, and it is not love at first sight, but somehow if they are going to survive they are going to have to put their differences aside as the chase continues which will either end in capture, death, or freedom if they can outwit their pursuers.
Cuttlefish is a well-conceived novel, full of incident and jam-packed with interesting, well-rounded individuals. It reminded me instantly of China Miéville’s Railsea because of its world-building and its cast of characters that have a fair degree of depth to them; and somehow I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, all of which makes me really look forward to The Steam Mole which will be released early in the new year.
See also Peter's take on Cuttlefish.
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