The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
Genre: Adult fantasy
Publisher: Crown Books
Release date: May 19 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A gorgeous and surreal world filled with broken but hopeful characters, beautifully written.
Back in her bunk, tucked in beside the musty warmth of her bear, North fell asleep with her hands linked tight over her belly. In her dream, she was her child: tiny as a bulb of seaweed, tight as a balled fist. Above her, the beat of an enormous heart shushed and roared like waves. Through her closed eyelids, the world showed in reds and purples: the branching lines of anemones, the nodules of coral, the hard lumps of rock and mussel. Inside North was the sea. Her child had come from the sea.
When I finished reading this book, after brushing away my tears, I turned immediately to Twitter to shout out into the void. Last year’s surprise read for me was Station Eleven, and I knew right away that it was going to be BIG (I was right). I had the same feeling after reading The Gracekeepers, knowing with certainty that Kirsty Logan’s debut is something special. It may not be on everyone’s radar at the moment, but just you wait. This book is also going to be big, as in Station Eleven big, mark my words.
What does this story have that makes it so wonderful? Just a few things you might enjoy: a floating circus, a bear, birds in cages who act as grave markers for the dead, a girl with webbed fingers and toes, gender bending, subversive clowns, a sunken city, and much much more. I don’t want to tell you too much of the story, but here are the basics: North is a young girl who performs with a traveling circus. Her closest companion is her bear, with whom she does her circus act. Callanish is a gracekeeper, someone tasked with performing Restings, where the dead are buried at sea. In Logan’s eerie world, the ocean covers most of the world, with archipelagos of land few and far between. When a terrible storm tears the circus asunder, the gracekeeper Callanish meets the crew of the Circus Excalibur, and their lives begin to change forever. Secrets and lies, enemies and lovers, all meet under the bright lights of the big top, as the characters try to find their way in a world with very little hope.
I’m not sure whether The Gracekeepers can be classified as fantasy or not, since nothing magical happens at all (with the exception of one character who is not quite human, but I won’t reveal who that is!). We can assume it’s a post-apocalyptic world since the oceans have risen and buried much of the earth. I was immediately entranced by Logan’s lovely descriptions of the ocean and those who try to survive in it.
There are two different types of people in this story: landlockers, who are fortunate enough to live on land, and tend to be much better off because they can grow food; and damplings, who spend most of their lives at sea, scrounging for every scrap of food and always hungry. North and her circus friends are damplings, since their circus stage is on a boat, and they travel from island to island performing, hoping that the landlockers will love their show and shower them with food and gold.
Callanish, on the other hand, is a landlocker. Her job as a gracekeeper earns her a small parcel of land, where she tends to her graces, the tiny birds whose sole purpose is to help people grieve for their lost loved ones. In general, landlockers look down on damplings, who are not rich enough to live on land. Damplings must wear bells, like a badge of shame, when they venture onto land so the landlockers know who they are. You can substitute any destitute people of present day earth for the damplings and you’ll begin to see why I felt so sorry for them.
So many wonderful characters make up this story! North and her bear were my favorites, especially since they sleep in the same bunk together (!!). The ringmaster’s wife, a devious and jealous woman named Avalon, hates North and tries everything in her power to get rid of her and the bear. And the other members of the circus are just as strange and wonderful. The clowns—named Cash, Dough and Dosh—refuse to follow the ringmaster’s rules and come up with their own risky performances.
And then there is Callanish, a lonely woman who spends her days with the dead and the grieving, tending to her graces and trying to ration the small amounts of food she gets as payment from performing a Resting. Callanish has secrets as well, one of which involves her estranged mother. Several heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them brought tears to my eyes, especially since I finished this book on Mother’s Day. When eventually the lives of the gracekeeper and the circus collide, Callanish discovers that there is more to life than being a gracekeeper.
Logan’s writing is pure joy, and I highlighted so many passages that I wanted to share in this review, that it was hard to choose just one. Her world-building was strange and sad, and the lives of the characters were harsh, yet there was so much beauty in the story. At the end, everything comes full circle, plot lines are resolved, and most of the characters find what they have been searching for. When I finished the last page, I wanted nothing more than to read The Gracekeepers again, for the first time. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
The U.S. cover is lovely, but don’t you love the UK version? That’s North and her bear on the cover!
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