Orphans of the Tide

Authored by Struan Murray
Illustrated by Manuel Šumberac
Published by Puffin

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It starts with a boy, in a whale, on a roof, in the last city of a world drowned by warring gods. Already, the broad strokes of our story are being painted with hues of Jonah and Noah and with shades running from climate apocalypse to Greek myth. But not merely the sum of its parts, Orphans of the Tide is also a breath-taking adventure, for just as the boy’s hand darts from the entrails of the beached beast to grasp our young heroine, so too does the first chapter burst from the page to grab the reader with a grip that never relents until the final page.

Most books are happy enough to serve up one exciting story, but with its rich tapestry of influences and references and allusions, Orphans drags its audience into a library of them. It is steeped in and embroidered with nods and homages to the mythical, the historical and, particularly it seems, the biblical. It uses this literary hinterland to piece together truths not only about this fictional world, but also our own.

A startlingly assured debut novel from biochemistry lecturer turned writer Struan Murray; Orphans rubs shoulders with the very best of the fantasy genre in that beneath the other-worldly narrative runs a throbbing seam of pain and struggle and emotion that rings just as true as any gritty, tear-jerking drama.

The story focusses on a trio of waifs: orphaned inventor Ellie, brash but loyal Anna and confused yet powerful Seth. After the latter washes up in The City – seemingly the world’s last surviving metropolis after The Drowning – this dark story becomes a hurtling game of cat and mouse, as he is hunted by the Inquisition, the deeply disturbing protectors of humanity. They are convinced that this mysterious newcomer must be the Vessel, the host of a parasitic evil called the Enemy. That is the cackling god who is responsible for submerging the last civilization and who now periodically and catastrophically bursts forth to wreak further destruction. Ellie’s puzzling certainty of his innocence, and Anna’s begrudging devotion to Ellie, sees them take on the hysterical establishment to try and save Seth’s life.

Orphans is a melting pot of influences, from the Inquisition nodding to some of the darkest days of the Church, to tales of a warring family of gods harking back to myths of old. However, one of the most interesting aspects is the mirroring of biblical narratives and themes, which could make it a fascinating text to read alongside a RE unit, to see how these ideas and stories influence literature across generations and genres. It could also be an interesting exercise to compare it to stories such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (coincidentally, Murray, like Lewis, in an Oxford academic), which are inspired by similar influences.

The biblical parallels are as many as they are fascinating. Among them, although this is by no means an exhaustive list, is Seth emerging Jonah-like from the whale, the remnants of humanity having survived the flood in an ark akin to Noah’s, gods taking human form, the parting of seas and even the climax which, to give nothing away, seems to subtly allude to both Easter and Pentecost.

In terms of the adventure story itself, Orphans is a masterclass in pacing. The first chapter grabs your attention (a whale on a rooftop, how odd) and then grabs you by the throat – I have never heard such gasps during a class story-time as when I closed the book at this initial cliff-hanger. The real genius stroke is how Murray builds expectation for a particular twist, which readers assume will be the big final reveal, only for it to drop early, leaving the audience excitedly grasping to make predictions about what will happen next.

The unrelenting pace is also helped by the ingenious structure. Such a rich and complex world requires a huge amount of exposition, which could easily weigh down a story, stopping the action from ever taking frantic flight. However, Murray gives a lot of this heavy lifting to diary entries that he intersperses between chapters. This means the reader gets everything they need to unpick and understand the setting without it making the narrative sluggish.

The text is complemented by Manuel Šumberac’s dark and angular illustrations. Their long, deep shadows add to the eerie tone that permeates this triumph of a story. The book, which perfectly sets up an already promised sequel, is a powerful mix of excitement and substance and deserves to be a staple text on every UKS2 bookshelf.