The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster
“I’ve found the biggest difference between a common crook and a – a superhuman abomination is usually a few degrees of being good at your job.”
The Drowning Eyes (2016) by Emily Foster is a fast-paced maritime adventure story, with cut-throat marauders, shady mercenaries, and a cult of witches and wizards who can control the weather. Foster conjures a vivid and lived-in world of seedy port taverns, creaky dhows and tempestuous oceans. What really brings the novella to life, however, is the characters who inhabit it. The Drowning Eyes features a predominantly female cast of badass rogues and fugitives of different cultures, ages and sexual orientations, a diverse group who bounce off each other in interesting ways. The strength of Foster’s character work allows the story to develop from a fun, swashbuckling seafaring adventure quest into a thoughtful meditation on aging and how we deal with differences in faith.
Shina is the only Windspeaker to survive the brutal raid by the Dragon Ships on their temple on the island of Tash. She must find passage on a boat to Jepjep so that she can escape the raiders, find the compass and use it to take back the Windspeaker’s icon, the source of their power. She finds herself aboard the Giggling Goat, a dhow captained by Tazir, a weathered, cynical sailor and her ragtag crew, Chaqual and Kodin. At first the sailors find themselves taken aback by their new shipmate’s naivety, but they soon become embroiled in Shina’s desperate quest to save the archipelago from the scourge of the Dragon Ships once and for all.
The Drowning Eyes is set in a vividly realised world. Foster is adept at picking out the salient details with which to conjour whole environments. From Shasa’s, the sleazy bar where Tazir and her crew hang out to pick up travelers willing to pay for passage, to the Giggling Goat itself, Foster’s settings feel real. They are grimy and run-down, used and worn. Rather than focusing on kings, queens and knights, Foster’s story follows refugees, outcasts and mercenaries, people on the fringes of society struggling to make a living. The nautical details are thoughtfully considered and realistic. Foster brings home how perilous sailing across the ocean in a small boat was; no wonder the people in her story have built an entire religion around the terrifying and destructive power of the ocean weather. This has the effect of making her fantasy world feel down to earth and relatable, its magic and legends all the more magical.
The novella’s characters are where it really sings. The ‘ragtag bunch of misfits’ cast of characters is ever popular, allowing the author to throw together a group of people with clashing personalities and aims so that the audience can enjoy watching them spark off each other. Much of the joy of The Drowning Eyes comes from this. Tazir is a fascinating character. Genre fiction does not tend to portray older women, and when it does they tend to fall inside very restrictive roles. Tazir is an embittered cynic, ruthlessly practical yet she has a heart of gold and cares deeply about her crew. She is also divorced from her wife, bisexual and a strong fighter who enjoys her drink.
Much of the power of the novel comes from contrasting her ruthless pragmatism with Shina’s youthful hopefulness and faith. Raised in the temple of the Windspeakers, Shina comes from a position of relative wealth and privilege compared to her new crewmates. However, due to her sheltered upbringing she is naive. Although Tazir has no time for the Windspeakers’ mysticism, she comes to care for Shina while she is on board her ship, and after witnessing her power she begins to realise that only the power of the Windspeakers can save the islands from the Dragon Ships. The crew is rounded out by Chaqal, Tazir’s lover and the quartermaster, an optimistic foil for Tazir who sees the best in everyone, and Kodin, an ex-bouncer who is the ship’s muscle but is smarter than he looks.
A main theme of the book is the responsibility that power brings. Power and responsibility are a tradeoff; one is not worthy to wield power if one is not going to do so responsibly. Shina’s power to control the weather can be used for good, however we are shown time and again the massive destructive potential of the weather. In order to retrieve the Windspeakers’ icon and to stop the Dragon Ships, Shina is forced to unleash her power at its most destructive. She is horrified by it:
“She’d hated wild Windspeakers in school – the ones who didn’t want to be there, who thought they had some kind of right to do as they pleased with the weather. Some of them just didn’t know what a storm could do if you spat it out and left it.
Others didn’t care. They were worse – and now Shina might as well be among them.”
The tradeoff between power and responsibility is symbolised in the ritual surgery the Windspeakers undergo. They have their eyes removed and replaced by stone eyes, produced by the icon. This robs them of their sight, but allows them to control their powers better.
The Drowning Eyes is Shina’s coming of age story, exploring how she comes to understand her place in the world and take control over her own destiny. This is contrasted with Tazir’s aging. Tazir is growing old. For all her strength and experience, her body is starting to creak, she is finding it more difficult to walk. However, unlike Shina, who is just coming into knowledge and understanding, Tazir knows her place in the world too well. She is set in her attitude of cynicism and bitterness, the results of years of hard won experience and disappointments. The book contrasts Shina’s blossoming with Tazir’s reluctance to change, even when her happiness could depend on it.
Foster has enough respect for her characters that she can bring them together and let them all grow to care for each other but not force them to stay together at the end. Over the course of the story Tazir and Shina move towards understanding each other, but there are limits to that understanding. For Shina, being a Windspeaker is her faith, her way of life. Tazir sees the Windspeakers as an oppressive religion that demonises its adepts and hobbles them in order to better control them. Both of them see Shina’s experiences aboard the Giggling Goat, during which she learns to control her powers and gains agency, as validating their own perspective. Despite the affection and respect they have developed for each other, this becomes an insurmountable barrier between them. Similarly, Tazir’s crew find themselves drifting apart after their shared experiences, the personal knowledge revealed to them by the choices they make in such a crisis highlighting their differences rather than their similarities.