The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a book I picked up at random purely based on the blurb. A light fantasy escape read for the upcoming holiday. I listened to an interview with the author just to be sure (linked below), liked what I heard and decided to read it. And it turned out to be the perfect holiday read just as predicted.
Set in an imagined world where the ocean has flooded most of the earth, most people now live permanently at sea. They are referred to as damplings and those that remain on land, who have an air of self-imposed superiority and suspicion of others are known as landlockers.
‘We shouldn’t welcome damplings like this,’ murmured Callanish’s mother. ‘And at night-time, too, when good people should be ticked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?’ She patted Callanish’s hands, making sure the gloves were on. ‘Some islands don’t even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they’re meant. Those people belong in the water. They’re dirtying the land.’
Most of the story takes place at sea, with the floating circus Excalibur and seen through the eyes of one of its performers, North, whose parents died when she was young. North performs a captivating dance act with her bear, her closest companion, though she is afraid for him, for though he would never harm her, his instinct to protect is strong and dangerous.
The circus moves from place to place, floating between the scattered archipelagoes that are all that remain of earth; they perform to survive, the only way they can eat, although their leader, the ringmaster Red Gold, has alternate plans for North and his son, to try to change that, to establish a presence on land, one that neither youth is particularly enthralled about and that his wife Avalon has become obsessed over.
‘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.’
Callanish is the gracekeeper, graces are small, fragile birds kept by her and used in a grieving ritual as part of her job in the Graceyard, they serve as a reminder of the duration of the mourning period, they are starved and their death signals the end of that period.
She is the sea equivalent of a funeral home, living isolated in her small house with only the birds and sea-life for company, tending graces and watery graves along the equator. People bring their dead to her for Resting, she performs the ritual and then lays them to rest at the bottom of the ocean in a shroud, tied to the birdcage containing the grace. We don’t know quite how or why she came to be doing this job, only that it was due to something she believes her mother might never forgive her for, penance for a mistake she made long ago.
‘For one adult Resting she was paid a mix of food, supplies and tradable goods: ten eggs, a thick wedge of bacon, a hank of fabric for letter-writing, a lump of copper the size of her thumbnail.’
When the Excalibur is forced to visit the gracekeeper, she meets North and is immediately drawn towards her, it causes a restlessness in her that sees her make some changes and seek resolution to the questions that plague her daily.
It is an interesting story about these two girls, the strange worlds they inhabit and the circumstances that are thrust upon them, forcing them to either accept or rebel. Accept what others want for them or rebel to lead a life that better represents who they really are and to follow their instinct.
There is a whole section about another group of sea-dwellers called the revivalists, which didn’t really fit into the story for me, they were a kind of evangelical group, where Callanish meets a former performer from the Excalibur, and tries to find out how to find the floating circus.
It’s an intriguing read that reminded me of The Night Circus, in the same way that there is something magical we sense about this world that is left to the reader’s imagination, Kirsty Logan provides all the elements and introduces the characters but doesn’t inhabit them in such depth to create a solid picture, there remains an element of mystery and curiosity. For example, I didn’t know the meaning of the word coracle, but once I looked it up, that one word alone created a whole new exercise of imagination to understand how they might have fitted behind the circus ship Excalibur.
It would make an excellent picture story book, I found myself wanting to see exactly how the author visually imagined this world.
Review by Susan at A Life in Books – The Gracekeepers: A rattling good tale, beautifully told
Interview with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Festival
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the UK publisher via NetGalley.
Many thanks for the link, Claire. Absolutely agree about The Night Circus comparison. I was interested to see the alternative jackets, at least I assume the last one’s a jacket but there’s no lettering on it so I may be wrong. I found the UK version captivating – it still feels the most fitting to me, perhaps you disagree.
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Yes, that first cover which I believe is the UK version (the one I read) was as intriguing as the blurb and could easily have been a children’s picture book. It’s intersting that tht etwo covers take on the two different characters, the second is a little ethereal and whicle a striking image, doesn’t really relate to how I imagined the GraceYard.
The last image is just one I found, I am really intrigued to know what Kirsty Logan imagined a grace bird would look like, I imagined it as a small yellow bird for some reason, what did yours look like?
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I imagined them to be quite brightly coloured which may not seem appropriate given their function. I much prefer the UK jacket. The other one looks a little insipid, to me and that’s not how I see Callanish! Your last image is lovely, though.
I have this in my TBR pile so it is good to know you enjoyed it. I liked The Night Circus so it is nice to see that you compare it to that. Hopefully I’ll like it as much as you do.
I did enjoy it and it was a holiday read, so not the same kind of book I usually read, but I like to take a bit of a chance on soemthing that looks a little like literary magic realism.
It’s not quite in the same realm as my two favourites of that genre, The Snow Child and The Drowning of Arthus Braxton, but equally, it’s not as disappointing as today’s Guardian review is making out. That review seems to be under the impression that:
“…the most electrifying parts of this damp pilgrimage are when Logan takes us beneath the surface, into the sea, diving back down into the world that was our own.”
When I read that, I seriously wondered if we’d been reading the same book and then remembered again, that this a book that requires the reader to use their own imagination, so a watery dystopia for them, and an intriguing sea adventure for me!
Beautiful, Claire. I want to add this one to my list!
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I hope you enjoy it too Valorie, it is a promising debut.
I loved The Night Circus, have been itching to read it again, in fact. Thanks for the heads up about The Gracekeepers, which by all appearances seems to have many of the same gentle qualities.
I have an ebook copy of this. I’ll have to take a peek 🙂
I read an e-version too, if it was a children’s picture book I’d defintiely be buying multiple copies, it has so much visual potential.
I heard about this from another blog and thought that it seemed interesting and anything involving the Night Circus which I actually enjoyed, despite the plot is enough for me to add it to the wish list. From reading both the reviews I would say it sounds like it has an ethereal quality to it and that makes me more intrigued as most books about a world underwater tend to go for a more gritty style.
I can’t say I enjoyed Night Circus very much as I have it away but I am willingly to try it. It sounds wonderful. 🙂
The reason I compare it to The Night Circus is mainly due to that necessity for the reader to engage their imagination a little more than one would for something more realistic. BUt this one has some quite unique elements, so much more than just a circus.
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I bought this last week and am really, really looking forward to reading it after yours and Susan’s reviews. Lovely.
Great review! I am definitely going to add this to my list.
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