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  • Ninay Desai

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

In the author’s note, Stuart Turton acknowledges that while The Devil and the Dark Water could be classified as a historical novel, it isn’t because some bits of historical detail aren’t strictly accurate. Which is another way of saying they’re inaccurate and he made a choice for them to be so else they would impede the telling of his tale. So, dear reader, don’t dive into The Devil and the Dark Water expecting to glean historical details or even a believable depiction of what it took to sail across the seas in the 1600s. In fact, even the conduct of some of the characters isn’t quite what you would expect it to be given the era they’re in. But in my mind, almost all is forgiven thanks to the author’s disclosure that “this is historical fiction where the history is the fiction”. Instead, pick it up if you are looking for a fun yarn with ample twirls and twists.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

The Devil and the Dark Water is set in the year 1634 and on the Saardam, part of a fleet of seven ships scheduled to sail from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam. The fleet, ferrying the usual colonial fare of spices and silk alongwith a mysterious and precious cargo, is owned by the United East India Company, the wealthiest trading company in the world.

Right before the fleet sets off on an eight-month long journey to Amsterdam, a leper proclaims the presence of his dark master aboard the Saardam and his ruinous intentions for the ship and all on it. The leper then combusts, apparently spontaneously, atop some packing crates. His prophecy, identity and manner of death are the first few mysteries we’re pulled into. Oh, did I mention the said prophesising leper had no tongue? Add another notch to the mysteries column.

Aboard the cursed ship is the arrogant and ruthless Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan. This is a triumphant voyage for him. Having governed the Company’s most profitable outpost for thirteen years, Haan is now on his way to take his place on the ruling body of the company - the Gentlemen 17. Unfortunately for everyone else, it is Haan’s decision whether or not to risk hundreds of lives by persisting with the voyage. Travelling with him is his wife, Sara Wessel, a healer and a lover of mysteries who loathes her husband. Also being transported is a prisoner, Samuel Pipps, who in a twist of fate has gone from being the greatest detective in the world to a convict in a dank, lightless cell. What he did to deserve such a rapid descent in status is another riddle. His loyal bodyguard is Lieutenant Arent Hayes – a mountain of a man with a noble heart and several secrets. Will he and Sara Wessel be able to solve the mystery of strange symbols appearing on the ship's sails, whispers turning common folk into followers of the devil and the disappearance of a witch-finder who suspected one of the passengers of being the devil? Or will the devil known as Old Tom have his pernicious way?

The plot of The Devil and the Dark Water unfolds from the viewpoints of various characters giving us an insight into their unspoken thoughts and worldview. This is necessary because no character can possibly be everywhere. Turton steps away from using a third person narrator, which was the preferred narrative style of the era he’s writing about, with good reason. Third person narration doesn’t allow for the kind of half-light and half-shadow effect that multiple first person perspectives can create. An omniscient narrator that doesn’t reveal the most poignant truth about a character who is lying about their true identity would leave readers feeling cheated.

Multiple character POVs get to leap over that hurdle in addition to lending a hand in fleshing out characters. If you think about it, you’ll probably agree that unreliability is better suited to individual characters rather than omniscient narrators. Turton also sprinkles in healthy doses of backstory for each of his primary characters, giving them a sense of grounding as well as acting as the soil for their deepest desires and motivations to take root.

The Devil and the Dark Water has several themes such as ambition, greed, gender stereotypes and hatred but behind it all, stands fear. Every character in the book has something they fear and the Devil, of course, is everyone’s fear. How fear can make reasonable and good people do the unimaginable is well-explored. Stuart Turton writes,

“Fear was too brittle a material to make good decisions from.”

Aside from a pacy plot packed with revelations, cliff-hangers, knife-fights and chases at regular intervals, Turton’s style is probably the thing that kept me hooked to The Devil and the Dark Water. His writing is clever and witty without being laboured. That said, there are parts that lack consistency in terms of character motivations and some explanations of the trickier parts of the plan are just left to our imagination. To add to it, some of the smaller puzzles littered throughout the novel are resolved way too simplistically to be satisfying.

In terms of genre, Turton melds together his version of historical fiction with a whodunnit topped with a dash of horror in The Devil and the Dark Water. And while the ending may not be wholly satisfying, it still is an enjoyable read.

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Sep 03, 2023

Thank you for the insightful review, Ninay! Your perspective is greatly appreciated. 📖👍

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
Sep 04, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Portia! Have a good day!

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