Harvill Secker, 2015, 303 p.
The sea has risen; the only land left is islands. Between the island dwellers (landlockers) and seafarers (damplings) there is antipathy, with the latter only allowed to set foot on land if they carry bells on their limbs. There are two main story strands. One concerns Callanish, a Gracekeeper. An aquatic equivalent of an undertaker, she lives in exile tending to graces, caged birds which are used in the ritual when a dampling has died and is “Rested”. Callanish’s preoccupation is to keep her webbed hands and feet out of sight of anyone as in this world such deformations can be a death sentence.
The other strand takes place mainly aboard a travelling – seaborne – circus where the young adult North has a bear as a companion. Their act is the circus’s star attraction. The ringmaster, Red Gold, owns and rules the circus. The main ship, Excalibur, trails the acts’ coracles behind it in a long chain. Excalibur’s sail doubles as a Big Top and its deck as circus ring. The main tension here is that Red Gold wants North and his son Ainsel to marry and live in a house on land. North hates the land and is moreover secretly pregnant – by a sea-swimmer she thinks of by names she’d only heard in stories “selkie, nereid, mermaid”. Red Gold’s young(ish) wife, Avalon, though, wants the house for herself.
Narration duties are carried by several of the characters’ viewpoints, Callanish, her mother (once), North, Ainsel, Avalon and a couple of the circus members, though only Callanish and North have multiple sections.
Despite North’s companion there is no evidence elsewhere in the book of bears being extant in this world. Neither does it seem plausible that any could exist on the scraps of land which are described. Food is scarce enough for the members of the circus. How much more so for a bear? North’s bear may be the last of its kind, of course, but surely we ought to have been told that. There is, too, a mention of ice and icebergs in the north. If the sea has risen so much ought not all such ice to have melted?
In the Avalon narration we find that on meeting Red Gold she lighted on that name because his boat was called Excalibur. No other reference to Arthurian legend is made, it seems of no importance to the people of this world; so what is the point of this? It can only be there as a nudge to the reader.
One of the clowns’ acts is to dress as old-fashioned bankers and throw paper money into the crowd. (we have previously been told paper is an exceedingly scarce commodity.) It seems the landlockers blame greed for causing the inundation of their precious land. This again seems too much of a reference to early twenty-first century concerns. Beyond the usual sorts of payments involving coinage there are no other references to financial transactions in the book so this note seemed off-key to me. For the world to have degenerated so far would have taken time; time enough for bankers’ excesses to have slid from prominence.
The back cover gives us a blurb from Ursula Le Guin, ‘A highly original fantasy, set in a haunting sea-world both familiar and mysterious.’ Maybe it was the bear that swung it for her. (Le Guin’s Earthsea does of course have a lot of water.)
Aspects of The Gracekeepers struck me too as familiar, particularly the circus (compare Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road, and slightly less so Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven which involved a travelling – non-circus – entertainment in a post-apocalyptic world,) Red Gold’s seigniory, the fascinated antagonism of landlockers for damplings, the repressive revivalist religious sect; but then again it’s hard to construct completely novel scenarios.
Pedant’s corner:- “all that was clear were the fine lines” (was the fine lines,) the violins reached a crescendo (a crescendo rises to a climax; it is a process, not a culmination,) “the crowd held their breath” (its breath,) “forced her mouth into smile” (into a smile.) “Water poured through the gap, knocking Melia and Whitby on to their backs in the freezing water,” (Water… water; a bit clumsy. “The sea poured through the gap”?) “she did not know if any of those things were Whitby” (was Whitby,) “selkie, nereid, mermaids” (okay, North is using generic terms but nereids and mermaids are both female, so couldn’t have made her pregnant) “opened its maw” (a maw is a stomach; how can a stomach open?) “wanted to avoid to performing” (to avoid performing,) “might all have up and left” (upped and left,) “her hate burned so strong” (strongly, that would be.)
Credit for “lain” though.