Dave Freer’s CUTTLEFISH is an excellent story. Set in an alternate 1976 where the British Empire never fell and that’s still dependent on coal as its main energy source, CUTTLEFISH features the stories of two teens — cabin boy Tim Barnabas, and passenger Clara Calland — and a rollicking action-adventure plot that never lets up.
In this world, submarines have been made illegal because they are able to go where other naval conveyances cannot. This is important because Tim is one of the “underpeople,” as he comes from London’s now-flooded streets. (London, in this conception, has become the new Venice, complete with canals, due to what Freer calls “the Big Melt” — otherwise known as climate change due to the overuse of coal.) The underpeople believe in democracy, something the autocratic British Empire would rather stamp out, and have created a thriving business by trading in things the British Empire would rather leave alone. They use the illegal subs as a way to trade.
Of course, Tim is a bright young lad with no future in London’s tunnels. He needs an occupation, soonest, which is why his mother gets Tim a berth on the Cuttlefish in the first place. Tim is quick-witted and learns to love the sea, but doesn’t really care much for the other cabin boys as he finds them either too rambunctious or too juvenile, take your pick.
Clara is on the Cuttlefish because her mother, an English scientist, has figured out a new scientific process. Every country in the world wants this process, but Clara’s mother refuses to allow it to be turned into a weapon; that’s why she’s turned to the underpeople and their submarines, hoping to find a way to either the United States or Western Australia as these two countries are the least likely to use her scientific discovery to make war.
But Clara is still a teen, and she’s both bored and lonely due to a lack of intellectual stimulation. Her father, an Irishman, is in prison after being branded a revolutionary, while her mother is severely distracted due to running for their lives. However, because Clara is younger and bounces back much more quickly than her mother, she needs to find at least one friend on the sub. This is why she initially talks with Tim — he’s her age, he’s known privation, and as he’s mulatto, she feels she has something in common with him due to the fact that she’s half-Irish. (Note that the term “mulatto” is not used. Tim just sees himself as a Londoner, same as any other.)
During the course of CUTTLEFISH, there are many adventures in store for Tim, Clara, and of course for Mrs. Calland. Some of these adventures you may not expect, but all of them flow naturally from the story and are sensible in context, something realized once the book is over (after you’re able to catch your breath).
And before you ask, of course a romance is in store for Clara and Tim. But this is a gentle, G-rated romance that builds out of Clara and Tim getting to know each other as people first, then members of the opposite sex, second. As this feels quite true-to-life under the circumstances — and as it’s always subordinate to the action and adventure that can’t help but go on all around Clara, her mother, and Tim — it makes perfect sense.
Best of all, the sub is filled with all sorts of people, which is unusual in any form of fiction nowadays as it seems too many authors in all genres want everyone to get along. Some of the people on the Cuttlefish are good, some are not-so-good, and a few are out-and-out blackguards, which helps ground the story nicely and makes the story far more plausible on an emotional level. (Trust me — Freer already had the other levels covered.)
Overall, CUTTLEFISH is an excellent action-adventure yarn with just a tad of romance that’s suitable for all ages. It’s meticulously researched, well-thought-out, and reads quickly. Buy this one for anyone on your list who likes naval adventure with a touch of romance, as this is a novel that should appeal to more than “just” the SF/F audience.
— reviewed by Barb