Thursday, 1 March 2018

Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty LoganThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (review copy) - A flooded world.
A floating circus.
Two women in search of a home.

North lives on a circus boat with her beloved bear, keeping a secret that could capsize her life.

Callanish lives alone in her house in the middle of the ocean, tending the graves of those who die at sea. As penance for a terrible mistake, she has become a gracekeeper.

A chance meeting between the two draws them magnetically to one another - and to the promise of a new life.

But the waters are treacherous, and the tide is against them.
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features an attempted forced marriage (though not a cultural one), and sexual assault.

I've wanted to read The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan since I first heard about it; a world with very little land, a circus on a boat, a same sex relationship! It sounded right up my street! However, I finished feeling pretty disappointed.

North works as the bear girl on Red Gold's circus onboard the Excalibur. She has only ever known the circus life, having been born to parents who also performed on the Excalibur with their own bears - before the bears they killed them. Red Gold wants North to marry Ainsel, his son, and has everything planned for them; he's saved up to buy them a house, and looks forward to Stirlings being back on land again, like he used to be. However, North doesn't want to marry Ainsel, and she can't think of anything worse than living on land, she only wants to be at sea. But what Red Gold says, goes, and if she doesn't obey, she'll be thrown off the Excalibur and the only life she's ever known. It doesn't help than Avalon, Red Gold's wife and Ainsel's stepmother, has a huge dislike for North, and believes the house Red Gold is going to buy is for them, and their unborn baby. But North also has a secret of her own, and that itself could get her kicked off.

Callanish is a gracekeeper; someone who holds funerals for those who die at sea. It's an isolated job; she lives on her own, on a house that has no land, but floats on the sea. She keeps graces, the birds used to measure the time the friends and family of the departed should mourn; when the grace dies, mourning is over. Being a gracekeeper means leading a lonely life, full of hardship and lack; the only people she sees are those who run the supply boats, the messengers, and those who come to request a funeral, she gets very little to eat, and she's not allowed to leave her home and go elsewhere. This is her life, for the rest of her life. It's a life meant as penance, a punishment for wrongdoing, and Callanish is filled with guilt and regret over what she did to her mother.

When North and Callanish meet, they are drawn to each other. They both begin to imagine the idea of a different life. Their meeting is brief, but the seed has been sown. Callanish wants to seek forgiveness, and North wants to put a stop to her marriage.

I was absolutely captivated by the writing. It's enchanting and magical, and has this fairy tale quality to it that I absolutely adored. However, The Gracekeepers is so very slow, because nothing happens. For North, her story is pretty much trying to talk to Ainsel to get him to talk to his father to stop the wedding, trying to keep her secret hidden, which gets harder as time goes on, keep her bear calm, because he's growling and baring his teeth a lot more than normal, and just waiting to see what happens. She's so passive.

The story is told for the most part from North and Callanish's perspectives in alternating chapters, but sometimes there would be the odd chapter from the perspective of some of the other circus performers, and the odd other person that because important as the story goes on. It was far more interesting reading the chapters from those other circus performers, because we got their view of what was happening, and their own smaller stories. It gave an insight to other things happening on the boat, that were important to North's story, but that she didn't necessarily know about. We got to see how manipulative Avalon is, how delusional Red Gold is, how Ainsel has secrets of his own. And it all affects North. But nothing really happens for her until the end, when everything happens very quickly, and feels rushed. It's all much the same, going from island to island and performing. Callanish's story got more interesting when she decided she was going to leave her home and seek forgiveness, even if it was against the rules. But still, there was a lot of time just sailing. And that didn't really lead to much either, except for a few heartbreaking scenes. There is just a lot of nothing.

Saying that, I loved the world building. It's not outright stated, but it's pretty obvious - from the revivalist boats, who are a religious group, there's very clear Virgin Mary imagery - that this is our world in the very distant future, after the seas rose and claimed so much land, leaving very little for people. So now there are landlockers - the people who live on land, and the damplings - the people who live on boats on the sea. There's quite a lot of prejudice and discrimination between the two groups, and both hate the thought of living like the other - except Red Gold, who has been both.

I really loved how some people are born with webbed hands and feet, like Callanish, who may be the offspring of mermen or selkies or some other underwater creature. This elements isn't gone into that deeply, so it does have a magical realism feel to it, but I do wish it was developed more. However, I was a little disturbed by how these people were conceived; it would only happen when a woman fell asleep on the shore, and wake up to find someone on top of them. There is no consent here. They have woken up to someone sexually assaulting them. It doesn't matter that in each case they consent once they have woken up, the fact is that this creature or creatures start while they are asleep, and that is sexual assault, as they cannot consent. When one woman thinks back to what happened decades ago, the woman thought it was her newly married husband - it wasn't, so she's not really consenting anyway. And it all happens in this dreamlike state, and the women are never really sure if it actually happened anyway. So these women aren't in complete control, they aren't completely sure what's happening, and it starts before they're awake, it's a lot like date rape. And this is never really dealt with? I think it's do with that magic realism element, where things are never really explained, but when it comes to sexual assault... this doesn't sit right with me. It made me feel really uncomfortable.

I'm so disappointed that there wasn't more to this book. I so enjoyed reading the words, but the story itself really let me down. There is going to be a prequel to The Gracekeepers coming in April, The Gloaming, which sounds incredible. It'll probably give some insight into how the world ended up like it did, plus is being billed as a queer mermaid love story, so I'm sold. I just hope more happens in The Gloaming than in The Gracekeepers. However, there are a lot of people who really enjoyed The Gracekeepers, so do read other reviews before deciding if you want to read this or not.

Thank you to Vintage for the review copy.

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Published: 10th March 2016
Publisher: Vintage
Kirsty Logan's Website

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