Prince Taliesin of Harth has just turned sixteen and is leaving the palace for the first time in years. As a child he and his siblings ran wild through the seaside capital, but once his magic revealed itself, he was shuttered away. Years before, their ancestor used his magic to lay waste to his enemies and competitors. Now, the Kingdom of Harth is in the perilous position of needing to seem penitent for his crimes yet powerful enough to defend their borders. The prince’s magic threatens the stability of peace, so the people were told he was sickly and he was forced to keep the biggest part of himself locked away in shame and self-loathing.
Setting sail on his coming-of-age tour—under the watchful eyes of his naval commander elder brother and a diligent bodyguard—is equal parts thrilling and overwhelming. Those feelings intensify when they come across a derelict ship with a cute yet strange boy chained up inside.
When Tal (or Tally as his siblings insist on calling him) frees Athlen, the prisoner jumps overboard and disappears into the murky waters, never to be seen again… or so Tal thinks. A few days later, Athlen turns up on land, carefree as can be. But he isn’t the only mysterious stranger Tal meets. Deadly pirates kidnap him, eager to force him to expose the very powers he has spent most of his life hiding. Tal must decide which is worse: dying now to keep his truth a secret or potentially dying later when his secret is revealed.
Comparing In Deeper Waters to Pirates of the Caribbean and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue may be accurate, but unfortunately I think it contributed to people (including me!) assuming Lukens’ latest novel was about queer pirates. There are queer people and pirates, but the main characters are not, alas, queer pirates. But that’s okay because Tal and Athlen are so darn charming that any queer pirate-related disappointment is quickly forgotten. Tal is bisexual and while Athlen doesn’t discuss his sexual or romantic attractions in detail, he is attracted to Tal. Their romance is both insta-love and slow-burn, and it’s hard not to root for them.
Prince Tal and merman Athlen are layered and compelling, two teens trying to forge a path between childhood traumas and difficult adult choices. Although not explicitly diagnosed as such, they both experience anxiety and PTSD. Instead of framing those issues as problems to overcome or hindrances to their growing relationship, they respect and accept each other and provide the necessary accommodations without complaint or jest.
Tal’s siblings also get plenty of depth and heart, even the ones that only appear briefly. Eldest brother Garrett feels his duty so much that it’s become part of his personality. But he’s not stodgy or impossibly rigid. He’s young enough to not be jaded but experienced enough to understand how the world works. Youngest child Corrie is a spitfire largely because she’s allowed to be. She holds no positional power (she’s too far down the line of succession to matter politically) or magical power, so she gets to be as energetic and nosy as she wants to be. She is truly the freest of all the royal siblings, and is the only one who gets to be her whole self. Heir to the throne Princess Isa, on the other hand, is a practical sibling who is as sturdy and thoughtful as her youngest sibling is not. She chooses to marry a man she doesn’t love to secure her kingdom’s safety, but she also maintains a position of power within that relationship and chooses a man she knows won’t be abusive or violent.
Scholarly brother Kest has a magical skillset of his own, but has a very different relationship with magic than his younger brother. Shapeshifting is seen as “good” magic, so much so that past nobles forcibly took all shapeshifters into their families to make sure that power was concentrated within the elites. There’s an intriguing discussion to be had about how two people who both experience the same overarching oppression may have different layers of privilege within that. I’m not sure why Lukens chose not to dive into that discussion, but ultimately it does a disservice to the story. The lack of conversations about the historical imperialism by Tal’s violently magical ancestor was another missed opportunity. As much as I liked the story, as high-spirited as it is, it needed more narrative depth.
Unlike Tal, his siblings, or Athlen the antagonists did not get the benefit of nuanced character development. There were hints of interesting things roiling under their surfaces, but because the novel centered on Tal, the readers only saw what little the antagonists cared to show him. And they don’t care to show him (or us) much until too close to the end. It also has the unintended side effect of making the ending feel rushed.
In Deeper Waters is a pleasant romp through a fun fantasy world. It reminded me a lot of Makiia Lucier’s Tower of Winds series, which I also really adored. There’s darkness, there’s lightness, there’s powerful magic and high seas adventure and sugary sweet romance. Although this is marketed as a standalone, I would happily accept several more books set in this world, especially one starring the runaway polyamorous princess. If you need a book that will make you smile, this is the book for you.