Review: “Many Waters”, by Madeleine L’Engle

(The book was published in 1986. Does that count as a retro review? How far back counts as retro? These are the important questions we at Superversive SF wrestle with daily).

“Many Waters” is the fourth book in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet”, comprising of “A Wrinkle in Time”, “A Wind in the Door”, “A Swiftly Tilting Planet”, this book, and (the boringly titled) “An Acceptable Time”.

I have read every book in the series but “An Acceptable Time”, and I gotta tell you: This was undoubtedly the worst one.

That’s not to say it was bad. It was not. And unlike “A Wrinkle in Time” this book, with its Seraphim and Nephilim, is definitely what can be called a science fantasy – so it reads as distinctly different.

Unfortunately, that’s not a compliment, or at least for the most part. The other three books (that I’ve read) in the series are notable for being wildly creative and bizarre; I’ve never read anything like them. “Many Waters” is a much more generic historical fantasy, taking place in the desert just a few months before Noah builds the Ark. The story follows twins Sandy and Dennys Murry, brothers of Meg from “A Wrinkle in Time”, after they accidentally get sent back in time to “somewhere it’s hot and dry”. The plot, which is rather loose, follows their adventures with the family of Noah and their attempt to get back home (something they don’t really try to do until the end of the novel).

There’s a lot to like here. L’Engle is not as creative as in her other books, but there are some notably interesting things going on, like “virtual unicorns” that only exist when you believe in them, woolly mammoths the size of dogs used as pets, and the use of nephilim as characters in the story – creatures who used to be able to freely travel between heaven and earth like the seraphim (angelic beings), but gave it up for worldly pleasures.

L’Engle keeps up a nice level of tension throughout the book that kept me turning the pages. Here is Dennys and Sandy’s problem: Some of the people they know, from Noah’s family, are quite nice…but are not mentioned in the biblical flood narrative, and are to be left behind. What can be done about this?

This is a smart conflict, and a genuinely puzzling one with no obvious answers. In fact, it’s so interesting that the other main plot – Sandy and Dennys need to get home somehow – is overshadowed by it. But I think that was on purpose, anyway. L’Engle at least seemed to be aware that this was the most interesting question of the novel.

So the level of suspense was high, and got slowly ramped up as the book went on and the flood we all knew was coming inched closer. This is good! It’s also a very skillful use of a time-honored storytelling tool: Add a time clock to increase tension. L’Engle, a veteran by this point, makes use of it with very good effect.

Unfortunately, though, there were serious problems. Sandy and Dennys came across as good fellows, but not very interesting ones. In fact, nobody was particularly interesting. There were no Mrs W’s here, and that ability that L’Engle showed in “A Wrinkle in Time”, the ability to create characters that jump off the page moments after you read about them, is noticeably absent here. I just finished the book, so I can probably tell people about the characters’ personalities if pressed, but I doubt I will within a couple of days. And Sandy and Dennys I can’t really tell apart at all. Twins indeed – they were basically interchangeable. L’Engle even seems to lampshade this a bit when she has the novel’s main love interest fall in love with both of them. This is a major flaw of the novel, and if L’Engle hadn’t ramped up her suspense so expertly it probably would have been enough to ruin it.

The feminist criticism seemed a bit hamfisted, and a bit off the mark besides. L’Engle has the characters talk about the sexist patriarchal society, but it didn’t really fit what we saw at all. All of the women in the novel – even the women who were together with the nephilim, the novel’s villains, though to a more limited extent – pretty much had the ability to go where they wanted and do as they pleased so as long as chores were completed…which was true of the men as well anyway. They have a ton of agency. They are allowed to pick their husbands, and can turn down suitors if they want to. They even carry weapons to protect themselves from danger (including dangerous men). The society just…didn’t really seem sexist.

Dennys and Sandy then talk about how the people who wrote the Bible were sexist because they mentioned the name of the men and not the women, but that just makes sense. Noah and the other men were the ones who actually built the Ark, even L’Engle’s version, and that is, after all, the point of the story. And the family line – the one that eventually extends to Jesus, by the way – passes through the men, not the women.

But besides that, there are legitimate things you can say about sexism in a patriarchal society (an ACTUAL patriarchal society, not our not-even-close-to-a-patriarchal-society around today). I just don’t think L’Engle really makes her case very well.

There are some good moments in there. Sandy and Denny’s relationship with Lamech, Noah’s father, is rather touching, and the plotline where they reunite him with Noah was a highlight. In fact, their relationship with Noah’s family in general was a highlight. But it would have been better if the people in it were more interesting, and more vivid. L’Engle could have done it. She HAD done it. But she didn’t do it in this book.

Anyway, I really did enjoy the book, and it’s required reading for those interested in the Time Quintet. But it’s not as good as her other offerings in the series, and that’s too bad. With better characters, it could have been.