By Tang Lanyun (23S05A)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
Rick Riordan’s rip-roaring sci-fi debut pays homage to one of the genre’s founding fathers, Jules Verne. Inspired by “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, Daughter of the Deep imagines a world in which the fantastical events Verne envisioned in his novel were indeed historical fact. The book itself spins a riveting tale of teenage ingenuity against impossible odds, whose high school characters break the mold of typical middle-grade (and Y/A) protagonists. With a clear love for the source material, Riordan deftly reinvigorates Verne’s classics for a modern audience, while also appreciating the diversity present in our society.
The story itself follows Ana Dakkar, a ninth-grader at Harding-Pencroft Academy (HP for short), wherein students are sorted into four distinct houses based on their differing skills and passions. Sound familiar? The parallels to the Harry Potter series are even cheekily acknowledged by our protagonist, Ana, but the similarities end there.
For one, Riordan handles diversity with much care and devotion. Ana’s relationships with her diverse schoolmates is the bedrock of this novel, and despite their different backgrounds, they support, respect and validate one another at every turn. Ana herself is of Bundeli Indian descent, while her unwilling ally-turned-friend, Gemini Twain, is Black and Mormon. Within Ana’s trio of best friends, Nelinha da Silva is Brasileira parda, while Ester Harding is autistic. The book hardly shies away from that fact, though it never comes across as infantilising or belittling. In fact, Ester’s loyal service dog, Top, who helps her calm down in stressful situations, is woven into the plot and follows the crew around on their adventures.
The cast of characters clearly deviates from the white, neurotypical mold that readers have come to expect of the middle-grade (and Y/A) genre. Yet, these divergences are handled with love and care on the author’s part. Rather than go the way of either extremes — glossing over differences, or exaggerating them to an ostentatious extent — Riordan drops in little details in a totally matter-of-fact manner, highlighting diversity as something natural and uncontrived. In doing so, he brings to life characters who are complex and multi-faceted, who face heartaches and struggles of their own.
As Ana and her schoolmates scramble to pick up the pieces following a devastating ambush by their rival school, Land Institute (LI), Ana must discover the truth of her heritage and contend with the new responsibilities thrust upon her. Over the course of the novel, she learns to take leadership of the Varuna, HP’s only vessel remaining after the attack, and by extension her ragtag group of ninth-graders—if only for a chance to survive.
Despite the middle-grade target audience, the novel deals with a variety of complex and emotionally-taxing themes. Following the deaths of their schoolmates in the initial attack, our characters must navigate the grieving process while also fending off the new threat on the horizon—rogue attacks by LI students. Ana grapples with the pressures of inheriting a destiny she had not asked for, while still mourning the deaths of her parents years before, and now processing the death of her brother, Dev, in the attack. On the other hand, Ester, a descendant of one of the academy’s founders, fears being unable to live up to her namesake’s illustrious legacy.
Despite the insurmountable setbacks that befall our characters, they nevertheless offer one another hope and compassion in small ways, bringing them even closer. This empathetic approach extends not only to animals, but also to enemies and even a sentient ship. Riordan emphasises the importance of genuine communication — communication that is gentle, kind, and forgiving.
Beyond that, the book contains elements of nuanced commentary on colonialism and imperialism. Prince Dakkar, the main character of Twenty Thousand Leagues from whom Ana is descended, is described by Riordan in the introduction as an “Indian prince whose people suffered under European colonialism”. After his homeland and family were devastated by the British, a vengeful Dakkar sought to bring about the empire’s collapse by destroying ships and funding rebellions. The book portrays him in a sympathetic light, and acknowledges him as a multifaceted man, whose brilliance belied his grief and paranoia.
As his descendant, Ana is then given a choice. Faced with loss, she realises that she doesn’t need to be disillusioned, nor vengeful and violent like Prince Dakkar. Rather, she can continue grieving while still remaining committed to improving the world through his inventions, and carrying on the legacy that was entrusted to her.
Daughter of the Deep is a heartwarming tale about bravery and compassion in the face of impossible odds, and what it means to embrace your destiny.