Review: Cuttlefish

Posted: January 23, 2013 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: Dave Freer, Alternate Historical Fiction, Young Adult

A good while ago, I had my first run at buying sushi. I’d sampled it before with friends and such, but had never purchased any myself. Apart from initially mistaking the twirl of wasabi for some tasty guacamole (How? Looking at it from this side of things, I honestly have no idea) it was a great experience. When I was finished, I decided to try the other interesting-looking thing on the plate. The one that looked like marinated flower petals. I found that it was sweet and actually pretty good, but then arose the over-powering taste of… soap? Later, a good friend told me what I had actually ingested.

The connection? My impression of this book in two words: candied ginger.

CUTTLEFISH (Amazon) by Dave Freer is a young-adult story about a pair of kids that spend a good amount of time on a coal-powered submarine. Clara Calland is the daughter of a pair of intelligent scientists. Her father has recently been imprisoned and at the beginning of the tale, she and her mother are on the run from quite a few potentially violent parties that are all intent on acquiring Dr. Calland’s recent discovery of a cheap way to make nitrates. (For those of a non-technical nature: nitrates = bombs and fertilizer.) The two of them find their way onto the Cuttlefish, the submarine of note, where Clara first meets Tim Barnabas, a young submariner. Though at first the two clash with each other quite fiercely, as the story progresses they do become quite cordial with one another. Would we expect it to happen any other way? Hardly.

And then it’s run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Err. Swim, swim, swim… yeah, you get the picture.

CUTTLEFISH starts with immense promise but nose-dives into the morass of mediocrity very quickly. We'd probably read another book from him though.

The first portion of the book jumps between the POVs of Clara and Tim in the present, and Clara in the past. Clara’s past portions catch us up from her being taken from school by her mother, through an escape or two, to finally arrive on the submarine. The switch between these three POVs was somewhat confusing at times, as it wasn’t always readily apparent what part of the story I was reading. After this was over though, I really started to enjoy the story. The world-building was quite well-done. History and detail not only in the world, but in the lives of the characters of interest. There was a great sense of place and tension as the Cuttlefish made its way through first the canals of a drowned London, and then around the isle of England and out into the Pacific. Also, something that I don’t think many writers get right, there was a great sense of the ignorant disregard that most young people have for very dangerous situations. I’m not sure what makes kids have this, but Mr. Freer nailed it.

And then came the soap.

Once out into open water, the story became incredibly boring. Tim does his jobs on the submarine, Clara starts to learn of being a submariner herself, and apart from a few forays that, quite frankly, felt rushed in every sense of the word, very little else happened until the end. Where it stopped. Without fanfare or applause. I’m told there’s a sequel to this book. They probably should have been combined into one book, because there was absolutely no closure here.

This book is a great example of starting out with immense promise, but then instead of going anywhere interesting with the story or the characters, turning its head and taking a nose-dive back into the morass of mediocrity. A shame really. Those first scenes, with the Cuttlefish darting and hiding within the canals of drowned London were really a lot of fun.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: A few mild references
  • Violence: Very mild fights
  • Sex: A few mild words

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