Orphans Of The Tide by Struan Murray

Published by: Penguin Books

Style: Dystopia

Setting: Half-submerged cities, ramshackle workshops, labyrinthine sewers.


The Great Drowning destroyed nearly everything. All that survived were four immense ships, and the people who lived in them. These people had been warned that the Drowning was coming, and had built these huge ships so they might survive. Three of the ships were lost forever, sunk by storms. The fourth ship, however, came eventually to the Last City, the only human construction that still rose above the waves.

ORPHANS OF THE TIDE of the Scottish author Struan Murray sets in this sunken world where an endless sea devours everything. The only place left is the Last City, where an unnamed Enemy strikes fear. Woven with legends, this enemy is an evil god from the ancient times. He drowned the rest of the world, and this city which built on a sharp mountain, is all that is left

Enemy choses itself a Vessel for every generation. Then it lives inside that Vessel’s mind, growing stronger and stronger, feeding off its Vessel like a parasite. Until it gets so strong that it can kill the Vessel and take a physical form. An Inquisition was established to stop him, and members of the Inquisition became increasingly paranoid.

Meanwhile the sea keep trying to claim the city back. When the tide rose, it swallows the city’s lower neighborhoods, leaving its own tracks when it spit them back out again. Mussels cling to window sills. Fish flail on the cobblestones. If you look down, into the murky depths, you can see ghostly spires and rooftops poke out from the gloom, like an underwater skyline.

And that grey morning a whale is found on a rooftop.

At that point we met Ellie; 13 years old orphan girl. She has mixed hair, torn clothes, with compasses, telescopes and oil canisters inside her jacket and maybe some grenades and gunpowder. She is the daughter of the city’s previous chief inventor. The city relied on her mother’s machines to catch whales and oysters and more besides, like to keep people’s houses warm and to empty them of water if they flooded. Only Ellie had any idea how most of them works, having carefully watched her mum for as long as she could remember. But when she was eight her mother has died, and she and her brother moved into the orphanage. When she was ten, she lost her brother too, and has moved across the street to build her workshop and took over her mother’s job.

That grey morning, when the whale finishes its last song and dies, Ellie takes a knife and cuts the sea creature’s belly. Then a hand reaches out from the cut. It reveals a boy about Ellie’s age, with grey-blue sea eyes. He doesn’t remember his past, he doesn’t know who he is. All he says is “Where are my brothers and sisters?”

For some reason, he looks very familiar to the girl, though she can’t be sure why. She feels like she’s seen him somewhere before. Ellie’s assistant Anna names him Seth. At this moment, Ruttschild, one of the most influential men in the Inquisition, comes along and catches the boy they call Seth.  The inquisitor says the boy is the Vessel and should be executed immediately. Ellie goes all the way to the inquisition building to stop him, But no one, not even the Whale Lords believe her. The boy is going to be cremated that night.

Meanwhile, we met a limp boy in the streets named Finn, who has an angel’s face. He doesn’t let go of Ellie. Finn keeps telling Ellie that he can help her to save the boy. But Ellie doesn’t like Finn for some reason, and she refuses the help. Still, just as Seth  is about to be cremated, we understand that somehow she made a deal with Finn. Little limp boy really saves Seth from the fire and gives him to Ellie.

As the book progresses like this, we read fragments from a diary of an academic named Claude Hestermayer. Claude is an historian who’s dedicated his life to researching the Enemy. He just lost a colleague he loved, Peter. But before he even has time to grieve, he finds Peter in front of him. Claude knows what that means right away. He is not really Peter. It is the Enemy himself. And Clause is his Vessel. Over time, Enemy begins to set traps for him, so that Claude is forced to make wishes from him, and every time he wishes something, the Enemy becomes stronger and takes his control. Eventually, Claude loses the control of himself and starts hurting his body. He hides in the sewers where the old and abandoned sunken city stretches out. That’s when he realizes the Enemy feeds on love. This information, which comes out towards the end of the book, is actually a very important clue.

Ellie hides Seth for a long time in her workshop. The place itself is at street level, with a library in the loft and a small metalworks in the basement. It is a dizzying and confusing place, looking as it does like the insides of a busy and unfocussed mind. It is a tall, unevenly shaped room, lined with shelves that towered to the ceiling full of strange objects like a harpoon, a sunfish skull, a giant sea turtle skeleton and more. Despite the size of the workshop it had a musty, close feel, smelling of damp and paint and aged books. It creaks and groans beneath its own weight. The atmosphere of this workshop juxtaposes with Ellie’e messed up mind and covers her terrible truth.

The book continues with Ellie and Seth escape the Inquisition. They go down to the sewers which is a meandering labyrinth of stone and rusted metal, crafted together from the ruins of older streets. They search other clues about the Enemy and the Vessel. Little by little we start to uncover the truth hidden to us while Ellie slowly losing her memory.

Then we, the readers discover something: A pearl in the oyster shell. It is the biggest clue. We remember thinking the Enemy is a parasite that feeds on love.

“It’s an oyster’s way of protecting itself from parasites. If a tiny parasite gets inside the oyster, then the oyster builds this beautiful, shiny coating around it, so that the parasite can’t hurt it. Isn’t that amazing? It takes something horrible and dangerous, and turns it into something beautiful. I wish I could do that with you,” says Ellie.

Suddenly old memories wakes up in her head, shaking free the dust. Ellie discovers who Seth really is and uncovers the hidden truth of herself…

How I feel:

Reading Orphans of the Tide is like walking through a cistern where shadows make deceptions, voices echo, and all concepts blend together. It’s a strange but imposing story that can be found in the belly of a whale. It’s very gloomy, but the tension between Ellie and Seth and their relationship based on disagreements  is sometimes very amusing. The fact that the dominant force is the Inquisition takes you into the dark ages, while the Whale Lords add a sense of adventure and mysticism. The book has a very solid and wonderful mythology: gods in the body of the Vessels. And the presence of Seth, who did not know he is a God, gives the book a deep, dark power. 

The main theme of the Struan Murray’s book is very impressive: the way the oysters protect themselves from the parasites by turning them into pearls. When a parasite enters, the oyster wraps it with a shiny, beautiful shell so that the parasite doesn’t harm itself. That’s what Orphans of the Tide is about: Turning something horrible and dangerous into something beautiful and sublime.

Orohand of the Tide will be released in 2020. Not just for children, but for young adults and all the adults who love science fiction and dystopic universes.

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