Stoneskin

by K.B. Spangler

Cover image

Series: Deep Witches #0
Publisher: A Girl and Her Fed Books
Copyright: September 2017
ASIN: B075PHK498
Format: Kindle
Pages: 226

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Stoneskin is a prequel to the Deep Witches Trilogy, which is why I have it marked as book 0 of the series. Unlike most prequels, it was written and published before the series and there doesn't seem to be any reason not to read it first.

Tembi Moon is an eight-year-old girl from the poor Marumaru area on the planet of Adhama. Humanity has spread to the stars and first terraformed the worlds and then bioformed themselves to live there. The differences are subtle, but Tembi's skin becomes thicker and less sensitive when damaged (either physically or emotionally) and she can close her ears against dust storms. One day, she wakes up in an unknown alley and finds herself on the world of Miha'ana, sixteen thousand light-years away, where she is rescued and brought home by a Witch named Matindi.

In this science fiction future, nearly all interstellar travel is done through the Deep. The Deep is not like the typical hand-waved science fiction subspace, most notably in that it's alive. No one is entirely sure where it came from or what sort of creature it is. It sometimes manages to communicate in words, but abstract patterns with feelings attached are more common, and it only communicates with specific people. Those people are Witches, who are chosen by the Deep via some criteria no one understands. Witches can use the Deep to move themselves or anything else around the galaxy. All interstellar logistics rely on them.

The basics of Tembi's story are not that unusual; she's been chosen by the Deep to be a Witch. What is remarkable is that she's young and she's poor, completely disconnected from the power structures of the galaxy. But, once chosen, her path as far as the rest of the galaxy is concerned is fixed: she will go to Lancaster to be trained as a Witch. Matindi is able to postpone this for a time by keeping an eye on her, but not forever.

I bought this book because of the idea of the Deep, and that is indeed the best part of the book. There is a lot of mystery about its exact nature, most of which is not resolved in this book, but it mostly behaves like a giant and extremely strange dog, and it's awesome. Replacing the various pseudo-scientific explanations for faster than light travel with interactions with a dream-weird giant St. Bernard with too many paws that talks in swirls of colored bubbles and is very eager to please its friends is brilliant.

This book covers a lot of years of Tembi's life and is, as advertised, a prelude to a story that is not resolved here. It's a coming of age story in which she does eventually end up at Lancaster, learns and chafes at the elaborate and very conservative structures humans have put in place to try to make interactions with the Deep predictable and reliable, and eventually gets drawn into the politics of war and the question of when people have a responsibility to intervene. Tembi, and the reader, also have many opportunities to get extremely upset at how the Deep is treated and how much entitlement the Witches have about their access and control, although how the Deep feels about it is left for a future book.

Not all of this story is as good as the premise. There are some standard coming of age tropes that I'm not fond of, such as Tembi's predictable temporary falling out with the Deep (although the Deep's reaction is entertaining). It's also not at all a complete story, although that's clearly signaled by the subtitle. But as an introduction to the story universe and an extended bit of scene-setting, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's also satisfyingly thoughtful about the moral trade-offs around stability and the value of preserving institutions. I know which side I'm on within the universe, but I appreciated how much nuance and thoughtfulness Spangler puts into the contrary opinion.

I'm hooked on the universe and want to learn more about the Deep, enough so that I've already bought the first book of the main trilogy.

Followed by The Blackwing War.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-06-06

Last modified and spun 2021-06-14