Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Margot McGovern reviews The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan.

One night a circus boat docks on a pagan island, and a small landlocker girl watches a young dampling dance with a bear cub before tragedy strikes.

Years later when the girls are grown, the landlocker, Callanish, lives in exile as a Gracekeeper in the Doldrums, watching over the dead and dreaming of the life she’s left behind: ‘Callanish had had everything, and then she had lost it. Now all she had was this caged bird fluttering inside her: the need for her mother’s forgiveness.’ Meanwhile the bear girl, North, is betrothed to the ringmaster’s son, whom she does not love, and preparing to leave her coracle to start a new life without her bear on land. However, each woman carries a secret and when fate brings them together once more they begin to understand that their lives are inextricably linked.

The Gracekeepers is a fairytale for the twenty-first century, and like all fairytales, there is great depth of meaning behind the magic.

Logan’s water logged world, dotted with occasional archipelagos, offers a detailed and fully realised glimpse at a possible future—one that is all too easy to imagine as we begin to feel the effects of climate change.

Whatever the truth, over time the landlockers had learned to blame the banks, the relentless drive for more money, for the rising seas and the loss of their land. Once upon a time they’d had a whole planet of fields and plains and deserts and forests. now they had to make do with the patched-up corners of gutted cities, to cluster their homes around half-dead copses, to scrape what they could from their tiny footholds in a swallowing sea.

the-gracekeepersThe cities of the past remain deep below, silent and empty of all but fish, while on the islands the landlockers sew masks from leaves and dance by torchlight, worshiping the trees and not daring to venture beyond the black shore where the seaweed marks a border between land and sea. Out on the water, messengers, medics, supply ships, circuses and shabby coracles sail between the islands and occasionally fall into the shadows of military prison boats and gleaming revivalist cruise ships.

For both landlockers and damplings, resources are scarce. People trade in supplies and everything that can be used, is. They light their lamps with seal fat and make cloaks from the skins and crockery from the bones. On the circus ship, Excalibur, the Glamours mix brightly coloured dyes for the performers’ costumes and make-up from the innards of sea creatures fished from the deep, and the ringmaster wears a shirt of paper ruffles to proclaim his wealth.

With so little land, damplings must be buried at sea. The dead are taken to the Graceyards in the Doldrums and Gracekeepers set the bodies to rest in the water beneath a caged bird—a grace—and the dead are mourned for the length of their grace’s life.

It’s a conservative, superstitious world in which both landlockers and damplings regard each other with suspicion. The landlockers, outnumbered ten-to-one, fear the damplings coming ashore:

Damplings had a wickedness deep within their bones, so deep it couldn’t be scraped or cursed out, no matter how much the great-great-greats had tried. Given half a chance, damplings would steal landlocker babies, everyone knew that. They envy us: our traditions, our food sources, the power of our gods. Everyone dreams of a house on land, but most damplings will never have one. And that’s how it should be; they wouldn’t know the traditions, and might not perform the proper appeasements. They might break a branch, and then where would they be? Where would we all be?

But many of the damplings are equally wary of those who cling to the small scraps of earth and worship ancient gods:

North never felt comfortable with her feet touching land. She didn’t trust its steadiness, its refusal to move or change in the honest way of the sea… [She] gave her prayers to the stars and the tides… They deserved worship for being the only reliable things in the world.

The Gracekeepers taps into our desire for spectacle and scandal that we crave in order to reaffirm our own beliefs and sense of security—our need to find an ‘Other’ to blame for our own discontent. The Excalibur circus offers ‘safe scares glittered with a fat dollop of magic.’ ‘The crowd think they want safety, but what they really crave is the trick gone wrong: the fall from a trapeze, the uncovering of bone.’ For both landlockers and damplings the performers become scapegoats upon which to take out their anger at a broken world:

The clowns made perfect scapegoats, because what’s scarier than a clown? They stand for money and hunger, sex and rage, loss and loneliness, displacement and death. They stand for everything and they stand for nothing… Everyone has sadness, and rage, and frustration—and so everyone needs a clown.

With their mutual distrust, damplings and landlockers mark clear distinctions between who belongs and who does not and there is little room or compassion for outcasts. Both North and Callanish bear their secrets on their bodies and wear costumes to hide their true form, afraid of losing the hard-won places they have made for themselves. However, neither is content and it’s not until their second meeting that they start to understand why.

Lyrical and enchanting, The Gracekeepers is a story of a world divided, peopled by those who think in terms of binary opposition: land and sea, man and woman, us and them, right and wrong. But with a subversive voice Logan asks: ‘Is it so bad to be different? To make your own way?’ In answer, she weaves Scottish folklore with speculative fiction to show that between these clear cut distinctions lie uncharted waters rich with possibility.

The Gracekeepers is available through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.

If you enjoyed The Gracekeepers, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

Nightds at the Circus Sea Hearts The Night Circus
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, available:

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, available:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, available:

Orkney Fevre Dream Among others
Orkney by Amy Sackville, available:

Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, available:

Among Others by Jo Walton, available:

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