Sometimes it can feel as if the world of science fiction and fantasy is nothing but epic tales spanning thousands of pages and dozens of books. And while those reads are enjoyable, sometimes a good novella is just what the librarian ordered. C.S.E. Cooney’s Desdemona and the Deep, the standalone third book in the Dark Breakers series, is a perfect palate cleanser.
The land of Seafall is a study in excess, and Desdemona is at the center of it all with nothing to occupy her mind except her mother’s dreadful charity events and her best friend, Chaz. But that was before she learned the origin of her family’s fortune. Her father’s family made a series of deals with the goblin king, the latest of which left hundreds dead and a handful trapped in the world below. Determined to right her family’s wrongs, Desdemona embarks on a quest to enter the underground worlds to bargain for the lives her father callously threw away.
One of the things that makes Desdemona and the Deep so compelling is that in its scant pages, Cooney manages to sketch the boundaries and vagaries of not just one fantastic world, but of three. Desdemona’s world, the world above, is a too-real Gilded Age nightmare where the poor suffer to make the opulent lives of robber barons possible. The worlds below are equally vivid, the dark and sharp world of the goblins standing in stark contrast to the gentry’s light and dreamy plane. That the three worlds are so distinct would be impressive in a much longer book. Within the confines of novella, it is a feat.
Another thing that makes Cooney’s world building remarkable is that, unlike many fantasy writers, she isn’t content to plop a society much like ours onto a foreign set. If sculptures can come to life, Cooney’s world asks us, is it really so strange to have a world that is more accepting and affirming of its LGBTQ citizens? Of course not. And that’s part of the power of these worlds. It’s not just their ability to showcase the fantastical. It’s their ability to showcase both the best of what humanity could be and the worst of what we have been.
The one drawback to Cooney’s latest novella is also one of the things that makes it so fun: It’s a novella. The shortened format means that Chaz and Desdemona’s story almost feels cut short because we don’t get to see as much of the worlds below as we might in a longer novel. But their journey is still a well-crafted one. A gripping tale from beginning to end, Desdemona and the Deep is a great read for anyone who loves a good fairy story.