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Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

An insidious force stalks passengers and crew on a perilous ocean passage in this genrebending gem.

The Devil and the Dark Water—Stuart Turton, 2020. Rating 5/5


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It is 1634 and the abusive and power-hungry Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan, is making the long voyage to Amsterdam aboard the United East India Company ship, the Saardam. Accompanying him are his wife Sara Wessel, their too-intelligent inventor daughter Lia, and Haan’s mistress Creesjie and her sons. Also aboard are the legendary sparrow and the bear: Sammy Pipps, a dapper English detective facing execution in Amsterdam for reasons unknown, and Sammy’s protector and friend, the massive mercenary with a conscience, Lieutenant Arent Hayes. When a tongueless leper impossibly pronounces that the ship is cursed and then promptly bursts into flame, Hayes and Pipps are rightfully convinced someone is trying to sabotage the voyage. Everyone aboard has secrets: some of which are more Machiavellian than others. Fellow traveler, the Predikant Sander Kers, is convinced that the demon Old Tom is aboard. Soon, Old Tom begins to whisper to the volatile blend of musketeers, sailors, and passengers, offering them infernal bargains. Demonic symbols, unholy miracles, and mysterious deaths plague the ship. It is up to Arent, Sara, and Sammy to uncover the truth.

The Devil and the Dark Water is a treat. It is a seafaring tale, with knife fights and killer storms and desperate conflicts in reeking cargo holds; it is historical fiction, in that it takes place long ago; it is a romance; it is a tale of friendship and family and betrayal; it is a philosophical puzzle about the nature of good and evil and revenge; it is suffused with supernatural suggestion. In short, it’s lit.

As the story rockets along we become helplessly, deliciously caught up in the myriad of mysteries and superstitious paranoia until we are nothing but a twitchy, hand-wringing ball of anxiety. One that tersely—but lovingly!—tells one’s significant other to leave us alone so we can finish this book. Glorious suspense! But as clever and brilliant as the plot is, the characters carry the novel. The diverse cast is nuanced and profoundly human and relatable despite 400 the years separating us.

In a closing author’s note, Turton hints at a keen understanding that makes The Devil and the Dark Water such a successful genre-defying tale. Turton explains, “You see, I believe a book is whatever you decide it is” (454). Everyone reads a story differently, taking away what they need and want. It speaks to Turton’s immense talent that The Devil and the Dark Water is so widely satisfying.