A Darkling Sea

A Darkling Sea book cover

A Darkling Sea

James L. Cambias


We are Here:  Done!

Spoilers?     A few


I’ve been waiting nearly two years to read this book, ever since Annalee Newitz reviewed it for NPR. But I prefer to wait for a book’s paperback release. Unfortunately, even after this was out in paperback, I couldn’t find it at my local bookstores. For all its accolades, it had been relegated to Obscure Title status. I had to enlist my brother to patronize @m@z0n for my birthday.

Worth the wait? Eh…

Cambias thrusts us into a universe of multi-species interstellar exploration. Things are ripe for a structure of the conjuncture, and that’s what we get. It’s supposed to be dramatic, and sometimes it is. More often I was left waiting for things to get started.

We are treated to three POV characters:

Rob Freeman, a human scientist and submarine dweller

Broadtail, an Ilamataran (native) scholar

Tizhos, a Sholen…diplomat? Scientist? (I couldn’t be bothered to sort that out.)

Each gives an alternate perspective on what’s happening with this whole space-exploration business. Both humans and Sholens have the technology. Sholens act as paternalistic oversight for the human operation, paying lip-service to a Human-Sholen UN organization that doesn’t seem to have much power. Ilmatarans are the subjects of the human & Sholen experiments.

Except when humans are the subjects of the Ilmataran experiments. There’s a grisly scene at the beginning that is the ostensible catalyst for the book’s cultural conflict. A group of Ilmatarans finds a human and takes him back for dissection.

For the most part, the narrative-sharing among the POV characters works. There’s a fourth POV character, a ne’er-do-well Ilmataran, but I didn’t quite know why he was afforded status equal to the other three. That could have been handled differently.

By the end, the only character I felt like I knew (and cared about) was Broadtail. He was the most fully developed, benefiting from being the character who world-built the Ilmataran culture. His struggle begins as a personal one and then grows as it intersects with the other characters’ problems. Team Broadtail.

The Sholen culture is less fully realized, and Cambias spends an inordinate amount of space hammering home the idea that for this species, sexytimes=ALL THE TIMES! If only he’d spent as much effort describing their overall physique as he devoted to describing their genitalia. It seemed forced and unnecessary. Much more compelling was the species’ history as a warring culture and their transition to galactic peace-keepers. That felt glossed over.

The human drama starts out well enough. There’s a secret forum where all the submarine scientists talk about ways to murder a commonly hated fellow scientist. Camaraderie is important when you’re kilometers under water with a thick sheet of ice between you and any hope of returning to Earth. But things quickly spin out as the Sholen descend to reprimand the humans for interfering with [read: getting dissected by] the native population. It’s very Star Trek Prime Directive. At least the Sholen want the humans to think so.

The problem is the war-mongering Sholen (NOT Tizhos) who wants to pull strings that reset the whole operation. Tizhos, meanwhile, is trying to broker peace between the Sholen and humans, to lukewarm results. There’s some resistance and violence and death. Some humans flee the main sub-station and eventually meet up with Broadtail. Bad grammar is exchanged. A (revenge?) plot unfolds.

Meanwhile, a Sholen plot unfolds.

The competing plots come to a head, finally, but by that time I was ready for it to be over. There’s a teaser ending that hints at Deeper Mysteries. Sequel, anyone? Unless it jettisons Rob in favor of Broadtail, I’ll pass.


So the human characters mostly fell (floated?) flat. Maybe it was the pressure of being so far under water. Who has the energy to have a personality? I get that. But don’t throw in a coworker “romance” between two non-persons and expect me to care. The only people who exhibited flickers of humanity were Henri (of dissection fame) and Dr. Sen (but only sometimes, and he was very Staid Wise Operations Director). There was also a Russian Guy, and an Angry Guy, but meh.

The Ilmataran naming conventions fill me with glee. They rely on physical descriptions and numbers, so you get characters like “Longpincer” and “Oneclaw” and “Shortfeeler” and “Strongpincer.”

Bascially, anytime the word “pincer” appeared, I smiled. Pincer. Hehe.

Did I mention that I went on a boat tour in Maine and they caught a lobster and made it fall asleep by standing it on its head? It was adorable, if uncalled for. Ilmatarans have my goodwill because of that unsuspecting creature. (It was released. But then they sent us home with a bucket full of other lobsters, which became that night’s dinner. I did not partake.)


Why is this book better than people?

Well the book, if not its author, certainly implies that humans aren’t interesting enough to care about as individuals. This might have been the point–humans are as indistinguishable from one another as Sholen or Ilmatarans are to humans. I somehow doubt this commentary was intended, but that’s the book’s effect. It’s a message this blog supports. Also, this book allows you into the thoughts of a lobster-creature who is both a gentleman and a scholar, which is pretty cool.

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