Grammar enthusiast. Cat lover. Illustrator. Slytherin. Loki's Army. Spending a lot of time reading the world. And fanfiction. .
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The Gracekeepers is a gentle and beautiful work of dystopian speculative fiction that doesn’t so much advance with a bang as with a whimper.
Set in a far-off dystopian future, the world of The Gracekeepers is dominated by water, with land a scarce commodity (think Waterworld). The wealthy minority live on land, while the rest – the ‘damplings’ – have to make do living on ships and boats. The story follows North, a girl who performs with a great bear on a travelling circus boat; and Callanish, a gracekeeper who lives in isolation on a manmade island, performing burials at sea for dead damplings. When the two girls meet, they find in one another the companionship that they’ve been searching for their whole lives.
‘You didn’t hear? The landlockers at the last island were gossiping. Some baby born with webbed fingers and great gaping gills on its throat. They buried it alive at their World Tree – said it was some wicked spell cast by damplings, the curse of the sea. The curse of us, North. It’s only a matter of time before they tire of damplings and try to bury the whole cursed lot of us. Get yourself a foot on land before that happens.’
‘I don’t want to be one of them, Bero. There are more important things than full bellies.’
‘Are there? I’m not so sure.’ Bero tensed his left shoulder, moving the empty sleeve pinned up on his shirt. ‘We fell into a hard life here. Imagine what we could do if we weren’t hungry all the time.’
I enjoyed The Gracekeepers, but some parts of it did feel a bit slow or flat. While most of it is written from the perspective of North or Callanish, there are also a lot of chapters written from the point of view of the other characters, which helps to give the story more depth. At the same time, I didn’t feel that the characters were adequately complex. Part of this I’m sure stems from the tranquil voice of the writing – big events do happen (for example the storm in the first half of the book), but the gentle tone of the narrative, which others have described as being lyrical or poetic, tends to dull their impact, flattening out any extremities.
Despite this, the book did draw me in – gently, gently – and reading it was a pleasure.
The story is engaging, if not particularly fast paced, and there are a lot of satisfying ideas present within it – not-so-subtle references to people having destroyed the world, with the flooded cities of the past visible beneath the ocean, and themes of class segregation and religion (not in the best light) are also there. One of my favourite lines of the book is:
It looked clean enough to Flitch – but then, maybe religion made you see dirt where no one else could.
I’ve also seen a lot of people compare this to The Night Circus (by Erin Morgenstern), which I’m ashamed to say I’ve had lying around my house since the week of its release sometime in 2011, completely unread.
I should also tag that old trigger warning about animal cruelty onto this book. Part of the gracekeeper’s job is to assign a grace, a small bird bred specifically for this purpose, to every dead body. The grace is kept in a cage without food or water, and when it dies the grieving period for that person is complete. The practice certainly adds to the feel of the book and to Callanish’s character (as she gives the birds small mercies, such as a few grains of food), so it does serve a purpose in the story and hopefully won’t put you off reading it.
Overall, The Gracekeepers makes for a contemplative, gentle read, with likeable characters and an imaginative setting. (Not to mention the stunning cover!)
I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Editions of The Gracekeepers will be released 23 April 2015 by Harvill Secker and 19 May 2015 by Crown.