The Gracekeepers: Sea and circuses

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan fantasy book reviewsThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

In Kirsty Logan’s watery debut, the world as we know it still exists, only it is entirely underwater. Eerie and poetic, The Gracekeepers has been dubbed a dystopia, but it actually reads much more like a regular fantasy. Small scraps of land are all that remain of earth’s continents after rising water levels, leaving humanity in two groups: “clams,” the lucky few who cling to the land and “damplings,” those that must live out on the sea. The two groups have an uneasy relationship: half-mistrustful, half-fascinated by one another.

Our story opens with North, a dampling who is part of the Excalibur, a floating circus that performs across the islands and archipelagos for the clams who live on land. There are sinister clowns, horse riders, acrobats and a ringmaster that seems to have more glitter in his veins than blood. North’s is one of the star acts of the circus, as she performs a tragic act of death and resurrection with a bear she’s had since childhood. North and the bear have a strange and relationship, sharing a bunk in her small boat, the bear teetering between tame and wild, North constantly trying to keep him passive.

After a tragic accident, the circus seeks out a Gracekeeper — an individual responsible for burial rites of the deceased. The Gracekeepers lead solitary lives on tiny one-person islands, keeping birds out in cages far out to sea to represent the mourning period for a person who’s died. Said Gracekeeper is Callanish, a mysterious white-slippered, white-gloved girl with something to hide. As soon as she sets eyes upon North, something inexplicable passes between the girls and the rest of the novel centres around their paths crossing and not crossing, and being haunted by the strange bond they shared.

The Gracekeepers reads like something between Station Eleven, The Night Circus and (to lower the tone) Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Unlike other dystopias out there (and I’m still not sure I agree with this label), it is much more slow moving than the usual frenetic attempts to topple an unjust government. Ursula Le Guin has praised the novel as haunting and mysterious, but the most enchanting part of the story is the language itself. It is self-consciously poetic and takes much more of a centre-stage than the plot itself. The characters take their names from places around and near Scotland: Jarrow, Avalon and Whitby, now long disappeared beneath the water, and it becomes apparent that there are many subtle allusions to the world that once was, though Kirsty Logan never goes into the origins of her world at all.

Whilst Station Eleven and The Night Circus had a compulsive feel to them that drove the plot forwards, The Gracekeepers takes its pacing much more slowly. Rather than the onslaught of waves it describes, the story eddies along with more of a trickle. It wasn’t until North and Callanish first met that the plot really got going, and even then it seemed to meander around before really coming together. Thrillseekers won’t come away satisfied, but for those who can appreciate the subtle dynamics of a poetically described world, The Gracekeepers is a book for you.

~Rachael McKenzie


The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan fantasy book reviewsI agree with Rachael’s assessment that The Gracekeepers doesn’t read as “dystopia;” there’s a clear sense that the story takes place in a world which is post-apocalypse, but the characters and narratives are more concerned with day-to-day survival than anything grander. Kirsty Logan takes her time exploring character motivations, actions, and reactions, and the novel is generally quite enjoyable. I especially liked seeing characters through one another’s eyes, as that approach created layers of meaning and misinterpretation in a skillful way.

Where I felt that the novel faltered was in the “connection” between North and Callanish; I didn’t get a sense for why the two women became borderline obsessed with each other after an evening of conversation. Most of the other character interactions and backgrounds were explored well, so this blank space was particularly noticeable to me.

The novel definitely has a drifting, dream-like quality, focusing more on the internal lives of the circus performers than detailed explanations of their performances or heart-pounding action sequences. If you’re in the mood for something slow and thoughtful, I’d recommend The Gracekeepers.

~Jana Nyman

Published May 19, 2015. For readers of The Night Circus and Station Eleven, a lyrical and absorbing debut set in a world covered by water. As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, laying the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future. Inspired in part by Scottish myths and fairytales, The Gracekeepers tells a modern story of an irreparably changed world: one that harbors the same isolation and sadness, but also joys and marvels of our own age.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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4 comments

  1. I’m still on the fence about this one — I don’t know if I liked how slowly it moved, or whether the pace was a detriment.

  2. I like pretty words, so I will probably enjoy this, but it’s not going on the top of the stack. Too much else to read right now.

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