In Deeper Waters is an LGBT young adult fantasy that turns A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue overboard in this Little Mermaid-esque romance.
Prince Taliesin is the reclusive third son and prince of Harth. Rarely seen and rumored to hold dangerous magic, Prince Tal sets off on his coming-of-age tour with his older brother. Almost as soon as they set sail, however, the trip is upended by a puzzling discovery. They come upon a crewless, burning boat, harboring tons of royal gold and teenage boy shackled to the ship.
The brazen boy says things that don't make any sense, doesn't understand basic etiquette (especially around royalty), and most surprisingly, seems certain of that magic that runs in Tal's blood.
Ashamed of the abilities that were passed down from his power-hungry grandfather, Tal has spent his whole life hiding and pretending to be normal (the definition of which is stretched, seeing as his brother can turn into a bird whenever he wants and everyone is fine with it). But when Althen, the boy plucked from the sea, isn't afraid of Tal or what he can do, Tal finds himself intrigued and emboldened.
With a burst of magic, Tal frees Althen from the shackles over his raw ankle. Moments later, Althen - desperate not to answer any of Tal's brother's questions - throws himself overboard.
Tal is distraught over Althen's inexplicable death, until he disembarks in a new city, overhears an argument in the market, and catches a glimpse of shining orange hair.
In Deeper Waters is a cute take on piracy, royalty, and fantasy elements. F.T. Lukens does a fantastic job creating a belief system, related to magic, that feels inherent in their society.
For example, Tal has a wilder and more uninhibited type of magic, inherited from his grandfather whom became a tyrant by using the same abilities to eradicate other magic-users. In current society, high-up families have bits of magic in their blood, mainly the ability to shift into animals like Tal's brother. which is commonly accepted and almost revered. This outcasts Tal, who's forced to hide his abilities from those who wish to wipe out any trace of his grandfather's magical legacy.
This novel is marketed as YA, but besides the few allusions to sex (which felt slightly out of place, like an older brother needling a sibling who is too young to joke back), it reads very much like a middle grade book. It did feel like some of the sexual jokes (between brothers and sailors) were included only to age-up the book. Tal and Althen's mindsets, the way it was written, and really the crux of the story (growing up, belonging in your family, growing into yourself) seemed much younger than I'd expect from the YA genre.
I additionally really liked the dynamic backgrounds of most main characters. Without spoilers, both Althen and Tal deal with some really heavy topics. Tal is trying to live down his grandfather's legacy and find a balance between hiding and living as a normal person. He's anxious and uncertain of himself, with his parents pulling an Elsa from Frozen and literally hiding him away. They ask him to conceal that part of him for fear of him becoming a target, but also to avoid war with surrounding kingdoms who would strike against Tal before he can grow too powerful.
This creates an anxiety in Tal. He fears that his existence causes more problems for his family. He wonders if they really care for him and his safety, or if they're keeping him sheltered until they have to use him like another weapon in their arsenal.
Althen has a different struggle. He's the last of his kind, uncertain of his place on land and in the sea, and lonely and grieving. But despite that, he's this sunshine character, a little scatterbrained, not clued in to the etiquette of life on land, let alone how to act around royalty. He's endearing and overly-familiar with adorable Prince Tal. He places value in sea shells and shark teeth and doesn't understand why humans don't value what he does. He's unassuming and charming, completely amazed by Tal in a way that makes gives the prince butterflies.
As the story progresses, we're thrown into Tal's plot -- his struggle to survive the rumors of his magic, the hatred his own people feel for him. He's separated from his brother and has to survive on his own for the first time. He faces incredibly hard, lonely days, wishing for someone to save him while he obscures who he is. He really grows over the course of the novel.
The struggles I had with this book is that Althen's story was almost completely unrealized. Althen was grieving the loss of his family, having been separated from them just like Tal. Althen is desperate to help the prince simply because Althen is kind and feels empathy for the prince, even when it puts him in danger and takes him from the only safely and makeshift home he has.
Again and again, Althen mentions his desire to see his family once more, to return to a home that's been ravished by shifting sea floors and tectonic plates. Althen creates so much sympathy in the reader, but it doesn't go anywhere. Althen helps Tal realize his own potential, grow in confidence, and admit his feelings (about everything). But Althen doesn't get much closure
He fears not being wanted, not having a family, and being alone. And in that way, he gets a lot out of meeting Tal, falling for Tal. But it felt unfinished, because with all the resources of royalty, nobody mentions helping Althen find his family in the sea.
I ended the first book thinking that This is Ever After by Lukens was the sequel. I was disappointed to see that it's a spin off.
At the end of In Deeper Waters, Althen's story isn't closed, and they're all on the brink of another disaster that must be overcome. Side-characters' mini-plots are rushed and tied up neatly, but unsatisfyingly. At the end, I expected a second book, a deep dive into their lives now that they're all back together, now that they're facing a new challenge, now that Althen is safe and has the resources and security to search for answers.
I wanted to see more of Tal's siblings, see everything that was hinted at get explored even more. It was disappointing when the prologue rushed through a plot I'd been waiting to see play out the whole book. I thought that was just the beginning of that story, but it was a summary, a conclusion to something that never really got the time it deserved on the page.
The novel was really cute and approached topics that a lot of adults and teens struggle with in a really smart, fantastical way. But it felt like the book needed more time. A few more chapters between the end and the prologue.
There was just something slightly missing, but it hit the four star mark dead-on.