How Deep is the Ocean
The House of Rust
By Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s 2021 The House of Rust is a stand-alone fantasy novel.
Mombasa-born Aisha lives with her beloved father, for certain values of “lives with.” The Hadhrami fisherman cheerfully mentors his daughter whenever he is in Mombasa, teaching her skills that women aren’t usually taught. However, he is often at sea, searching for fish in waters where others dare not venture.
One day Aisha’s father does not return.
Tradition says to wait five days for an overdue fisherman, then have him declared dead. Experience says if they do not return within the allotted time, then they have fallen victim to one of the ocean’s myriad dangers. All that grieving family members can do is accept that this is the way of the sea, have a funeral without a body to bury, and get on with life.
Aisha refuses to accept that her father is dead. She resolves to follow her father’s course out to sea, where she will either find her father’s corpse or rescue his living body (note: her unconventional childhood means that she is as adept with a boat as any boy would be). Or, more likely, she may die in her quest.
Aisha’s resources extend beyond her own skills. A talking cat takes interest in her cause and not only joins her, but sings up a ship made from the bones of a long-dead sea creature. All that remains now is to follow the clues (a succession of monsters) until she finds either her father or her death.
Or so it seems. In fact, finding her father is just the beginning. Her quest has consequences that far surpass its original, modest goals.
Aisha demonstrates a rare confidence that the beings whose poor behavior she berates will not simply eat her. Other fishermen lack her confidence, which is one reason that none of them will join her on her quest.
It’s not just a plot contrivance that Aisha finds magical aid when she needs it. This is a setting in which animals speak, great monsters dwell in the sea, and magic is commonplace. Humans prefer to ignore all that1 but it’s there. As well, she is her father’s daughter and her father has an unusual, non-human friend, a friend who helps her, if rather grudgingly.
This book did not end when I thought it would. For that matter, it didn’t end in a way that Aisha expected. Going off on a magical quest in a supernatural boat summoned by a talking cat changes one; consequences don’t stop happening just because one has succeeded in the quest and returned home. Although the pacing might seem odd, it is clearly deliberate and part of the point the author is making. Adventures change one; exploring the implications of change is as interesting as the initial quest.
The prose was delightful, and this was an enjoyable work with which to spend an evening. My list of authors to keep an eye on has incremented by one.
The House of Rust is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). The House of Rust is available here (Amazon UK) but only as an audiobook. [added later] Wait, no: it is on Amazon UK as well.
1: Humans ignore the sea in large part out of a sense of self-preservation. Take too close an interest in the great beings of the sea and they may well take too close an interest in you.