Hunting a Legend: And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

In an upside down, topsy turvy yet familiar world in the depths of the ocean, a war has been raging for generations between two species who have always, it seems, hunted one another.  Bathsheba the whale is part of the formidable Captain Alexandra’s pod, part of this endless hunt. But the Captain bears a violent obsession against one particular enemy: the mighty Toby Wick, a man, a monster, a myth and quite possibly the devil himself. Wick has killed countless pods, and has never been found, but Captain Alexandra is certain that she is the one who will end him.

Patrick Ness’ new illustrated novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a gorgeous, richly imaginative take on Moby-Dick, with the narrative focus shifting to the perspective of whales hunting humans. “Call me Bathsheba,” begins the story, immediately echoing one of the best known opening lines in literature. But even to those unfamiliar with Moby-Dick, And the Ocean Was Our Sky will  be a haunting and powerful story. 

Bathsheba and her pod come across a ruined human ship, destroyed entirely and with its crew killed—all but one man named Demetrius, who appears to have been left alive with the sole purpose of passing on a message about (and possibly from?) Toby Wick. Captain Alexandra isn’t keen on keeping the human as a live captive, but he has information she needs, and so Bathsheba is tasked with gaining this information from a man who starts to slowly gain her empathy. Bathsheba isn’t naturally a hunter—she’s had to learn to become one, learn to love the hunt, “not merely for itself, but for its history, for its part in [her] identity.” The hunts for humans and their vessels have always taken place, and “…what more reason did a young whale need than the fact that men had hunted us for time immemorial and hunting men was what we did in return? It was a whale’s duty, if so prophesied, and I embraced it.”

Like all whales, she hates all men, “and with good reason: their bloody killings, their sloppy, wasteful harvesting proving that they killed as much for sport as for need.” But the whales themselves appear to do no less than the humans do—they too “harvest” the men whose ships they smash to bits, selling their teeth as fake digestive aids, breaking down bodies to commodify. It’s quid pro quo, all the way, always and seemingly forever—there is nothing, no cruelty or violence that one species carries out against the other that is not equally mirrored by the second. This mutual hatred and all its ensuing death and destruction makes for a troubling, dark narrative, particularly since neither Bathsheba not Demetrius have any romantic notions about the war, though each is deeply enmeshed in the fight against the other. As she tells us, “there are those who romance the hunt the way they romance the war; in their safety, they imagine heroism, they imagine a place in history, an invisible pride that wont feed their children but will raise them above their neighbours; they never imagine the despair; they never imagine the blood and suffering; they never image how your heart dies and dies again.” And so the hunts continue, as Bathsheba, a self-professed “thinker” who grew up refusing to believe in the existence of the devil is forced to accept that perhaps there really is more to Toby Wick than just a frightening legend.

Bathsheba’s conversations with Demetrius explore the consequences of these endless hunts and this constant search for the devil, how this affects both species, and the biases that this hatred has been based on. Their worlds are opposites, their struggle in each other’s environment equal, but both are need the other’s world just as much—the whales must breathe when they can; the humans of course need water equally. How they tell the stories of each other though, is what can not be reconciled: “…men lived upside down from us, that for them the ocean was below, the Abyss above, our gravities only meeting at the surface. I knew, too, that our writers speculated about worlds where whales also lived this way around, rising to meet men rather than swimming down to them, but to us, this was nearly blasphemy, a fantasy of men pretending to a dominance they’d never have.” And the Ocean Was Our Sky is very much only concerned with the water world of the whales, though, with very little happening above the ocean. As if Ness’ language isn’t convincing enough, Rovina Cai’s gorgeous atmospheric illustrations are very much a part of And the Ocean Was Our Sky’s underwater narrative, too. Lush, dark washes, strong lines and perfectly placed colour bleeds across the pages, drawing the reader fast into the turbulent, murky world of the whale hunts.

This is a book about prejudices that lead to generations of hate and death; about who monsters are, and what makes them so; about loyalty and single minded, determined violent obsessions that can never end well for most, but make a great story for the ones who survive to tell.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is available from HarperTeen.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.


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