A baby is miraculously pulled from a sinking tugboat by a weather-beaten shipbreaker, Halflin. But as Halflin discovers, he is no ordinary child; he is the seaborn son of former leaders of the resistance. If Halflin is found with a baby, they will both be killed by the fearsome Terra Firma, rulers of the seas and the drowned lands around them. Their leader Chilstone is a ruthless and vicious megalomaniac spreading terror with his Fearzero fleet of ships and intent on wiping out any trace of the resistance movement that had attempted to assassinate him. Halflin looks after the boy anyway and manages to conceal him for thirteen years. Now the authorities are on to him and so Fenn embarks on a life on the run. He ends up in the Shanties living by his wits, dodging thieves and the terrifying roustabouts rumoured to eat people. He is rescued by a young boy Gulper and brought to live with other abandoned children presided over by the creepy Nile and Mrs Leach. While climbing one of the sea platforms Fenn spots a boat sailing in on the sly. He is hopeful of escape but discovers the boat is not what it seems and they are all to be sold to child traffickers. The gang of children outsmart the crew and take the boat to find a new life on the marshes. They are chased by the Terra Firma’s huge ship Warspite which ploughs through the Shanties but they manage to evade capture.
Fighting off wolves and desperate to get back to his home Fenn discovers his beloved grandfather is dead. He finds a tiny gold key hidden in his grandfather’s shack, symbol of the resistance fighters and realises what he must do. He insists his friends leave him as he might put them in danger and sets fire to the beacon hoping this will alert any resistance fighters out there. The story ends on a cliff-hanger with Fenn alone but waiting for his destiny to be fulfilled.
This near-future story is rich in description; the half-drowned and uncompromising marshy landscape is temendously atmospheric and pervades the whole novel. Fenn is a reluctant hero at the start but grows in strength and stature throughout. At times his tale is almost too bleak and painful but his resilience and determination shine through helped along the way with a cast of colourful and imaginative oddballs. The plot moves along at breakneck speed with chases and danger at every turn so it is somewhat frustrating to be left dangling at the end, albeit in a hopeful way.