Fiction Reviews

The Gracekeepers

(2015) Kirsty Logan, Harvill Secker, £12.99, hrdbk, 304pp, ISBN 978-1-846-55916-7


In many ways The Gracekeepers is a novel-length fairy tale, given the memorable characters – some of which have names from the past like Jarrow and Whitby and Avalon - the situation, and the occasional jolting, jarring shocks that emerge from the gentle dream-like narrative flow like the jagged teeth of rocks protruding from the depths that a boat might run aground on.

The world has changed, everything has changed, there is water almost everywhere, and dead cities lie below the surface, still visible in places, like a dream, or a warning. There is still some land to live on, and you can become a 'clam' or 'landlocker' as they are called, if you are rich enough to afford it. If not, you will live and die on the seemingly endless seas, though some yearn and dream of a different future on the land, but for very different reasons. Callanish lives on the land, if you can call where she lives “land” and she is alone on a man-made island visited only by those who would leave her supplies and those who want her to perform a death ritual, because she is a Gracekeeper of the title, one who performs the funeral rites for those who die at sea. These rites involve the allocation of a caged bird – a grace – which has been bred to spend its last few days caged without food and water and when it dies the mourning period for the person who died is over. Callanish yearns for her mother, yearns to fish, but dare not, believing the sea that surrounds her is polluted by the rotting bodies she has helped dispatch. The other major character is North, one of the travelling folk, or the 'damplings' as they are known, living on the floating circus that consists of a convey of different crafts that make up 'Excalibur' which visits the islands to entertain. North has a performing bear which sets her apart, and she would like to be apart from the rest of them, hating the Ringmaster’s wife, Avalon, and hating the plans of the ringmaster, sometimes known as Jarrow and sometimes known as Red Gold, and the expectations she will marry his son, even though neither of them want this. North and Callanish have encountered each other briefly, right at the start of the novel, but were too young to remember it, as other, darker events, dominated the proceedings, but now a storm is coming and they will meet again.

Lyrical, poetic, reminding me of Le Guin, of the Abarat books of Clive Barker (must be all that water), Angela Carter too, maybe even Christopher Priest (must be all those priest_islanders.html islands), and possibly even China Mieville’s Railsea, but instead of big powerful trains, we have powerful boats, full of powerful people making up their own rules as they sail along and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. However, most of all, with its slightly distancing text in places The Gracekeepers reminds me of the works of Gene Wolfe which can be no bad thing. I remember reading that David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was his blueprint to stardom, The Gracekeepers could very well be Kirsty Logan’s own blueprint. Watch this space.

Ian Hunter

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