Review by Nalini Haynes
Cuttlefish by Dave Freer is a speculative fiction YA book set in a not-too-distant past alternate history where rising sea levels have flooded London, converting that city into a new Venice. Clara Calland, a teenager at boarding school, absconds with her mother who is being hunted by government and anti-government groups. Tim, a teenage boy from the impoverished tunnels of London, has signed on to the Cuttlefish as crew. The Cuttlefish is a submarine with catamaran capabilities that alternately runs on coal, electricity or wind power, depending on the circumstances. Fully crewed, the submarine has a traitor on board. No-one listens to Clara or Tim, so they investigate on their own with dire consequences.
Dave Freer has built an intricate alternate-history world with steampunk themes. The British Empire remains strong in spite of excessive use of coal leading to premature rising of sea levels; world politics and geography varying accordingly. The detail that goes into Freer’s descriptions of running Cuttlefish, including converting the submarine to sail power and hydro-foils, is incredible. Likewise, the detailed world-building is immersive; Freer has translated authentic history into this alternate world with a differing political agenda.
The plot has four main threads: 1) a very chaste romance between Clara and Tim, young love at its most naïve and endearing, 2) Clara’s discovery of world politics including her parents’ roles in a rebellion, 3) a chase scenario where the various groups are hunting Clara’s mother hunt down in Cuttlefish and 4) the traitor on board, his actions and consequences. I’d prefer a little less focus on the actual sailing and hiding. I felt it was hard to maintain my suspense in some sequences, but then I’m one of those heretics who found 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea deathly dull: perhaps I just have a very short attention span. The other plot threads are engaging, the characters are interesting and they develop throughout the novel as do their relationships. I can easily visualise Cuttlefish as a beautiful colour graphic novel or even a Hunt for Red October-style movie.
Cuttlefish is a kind of coming-of-age story in that Clara and Tim are both in the process of growing up and re-evaluating their places in the world. So many stories of this genre use generation disconnect tropes and seem to leave you with the feel of ‘it’s over, they’ve grown up’ at the end, which is very superficial. Freer explores themes of generational disconnect and relationships by balancing possible rebellion against the necessity of relationships, alongside the knowledge that the teenagers don’t have all the answers. Clara and Tim’s relationship and coming of age is a story of transition with a hope for the future but it’s not an end in itself. It’s not clear whether Freer intends to write more in this series; the open ending leaves room for more, or for the reader to imagine their own future.
Billed as a YA novel for ages 12 and up, I recommend Cuttlefish for primary students with an appropriate reading age as well. Cuttlefish is recommended for fans of YA spec fic, sailing, steampunk and alternate history, for older children, teens and the young at heart.