(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher.)
Alone in their coracle, they were not performers, not burdens, not dangers, not weapons, not food. They were family.
Her whole life she had been afraid of the sea, terrified that it wanted to swallow her whole. And here she was, and it held her.
What’s the use of a clown who doesn’t subvert? What do they bring to the crowd? Everyone has sadness, and rage, and frustration – and so everyone needs a clown.
Callanish Sand will always remember the bear.
She was just a little girl when the Circus Excalibur visited her island, North-East 19 archipelago – home of the sacred World Tree – docking only long enough to put on a night show for the landlockers’ amusement. (And some food and provisions, gods willing.) Everything was going swimmingly (pun intended); the acrobats, fire-breather, and equestrians performed to the audience’s delight. And then the show reached its climax: a veritable bloodbath.
Two adults, a man and a woman, performing a courtship waltz with a giant bear, when something went tragically (yet predictably) awry. Even today, Callanish isn’t exactly sure of the what or the why, shielded as she was from the fray by her mother’s steady arms. Before she was carried away, Callanish saw three fallen bodies: those of the man, the woman, and the eviscerated bear. “And in the center of it all, […] two figures: one draped in white, one furred black; both with eyes open moon-round and empty. A small girl and a small bear, hands and paws still linked.” The children of the dead, left to pick up the pieces.
Now it’s many years later, and Callanish is living in a state of self-exile: working as a gracekeeper on one of the many tiny islands that ring the equator. A gracekeeper’s job is among the most taboo: handling the dead, preparing them for burial, and laying them to rest at sea. Graceyards are not destinations, but places to pass through; gracekeepers, social outcasts.
Damplings are legally required to lay their dead to rest in graceyards, with all their Resting rules and customs; and, seeing as damplings outnumber landlockers ten to one, Callanish sees enough business to provide for herself. Just barely, but it’s enough – especially when so many of her clients go without. Besides, the solitude suits her; though she was born a landlocker, she no longer feels worthy of calling solid land her home. Not after the suffering she caused her mother, Veryan.
When a circus ship passes through her graceyard, Callanish is compelled to travel back home to seek her mother’s forgiveness. Little does she know that her fate is inexorably intertwined with that of one its performers: North, who’s just a few short weeks away from being forced into an arranged marriage with the captain’s son, Ainsel. Already pregnant with another man’s child, North – a dampling through and through – despairs at the thought of setting foot on dry land. For Red Gold wants to buy his son and future daughter-in-law a house, you see: to restore the Stirling name as honest-to-goodness landlockers. Yet if she should refuse, Red Gold will surely kick North off the Excalibur – and where will she, her baby, and her bear be then?
If I had to choose just one word to describe The Gracekeepers, it’d be ENCHANTING – with MAGICAL, SPELLBINDING, and BREATHTAKING all coming in a close second. Captivated from page one, I read most of the book (about 80%) in one sitting. Somewhat serendipitously, this marathon reading session happened to coincide with a pretty epic thunderstorm, which catapulted the atmosphere so skillfully established by Logan to the nth level. If you can, save this one for a rainy day. Or a day at the beach! Anywhere there’s water to gaze upon and listen to or otherwise immerse yourself in, okay.
The story is told primarily from the alternating perspectives of Callanish and North, but is punctuated by single chapters in the voices of multiple supporting characters: the clowns Cash, Dosh, and Dough; Red Gold’s wife and son, Avalon and Ainsel; Melia, one half of the acrobat team (who, reminiscent of Jack White and Meg White, alternately pretend to be siblings and spouses); captain/ringmaster Red Gold; and Flitch, a messenger who agrees to deliver Callanish to her mum. While the diversion from Callanish and North initially proved irritating, I quickly fell in love with the unusual format, which offers insights into various characters’ thoughts and motivations that the audience might not be privy to. On several occasions, I was more than a little surprised to find my impression of a certain character shift radically over the course of his or her chapter.
Avalon, for example, starts out as a caricature of a manipulative, greedy wife. While still rather unlikable by story’s end, her chapter shines a much-needed light on her inner desires and end goals, making her slightly more sympathetic. Still evil though.
With tales set in circuses and carnivals currently all the rage, I quite love how Logan emphasizes the subversive potential of the big top. Though Circus Excalibur is lacking a sideshow – and thus doesn’t have any “freaks” on board – many of its performances play with gender roles and norms in a way meant to confuse and fluster the audience. From their long, brightly dyed locks to the androgyny of the maypole dance, this “tightrope-walk between the genders” harkens back to freakshow acts like the Bearded Lady, the Amazon Woman, and the half-man, half-woman.
In a similar vein, Callanish and North upend the dichotomy between damplings and landlockers. As an inebriated (and uncharacteristically chatty) Callanish so succinctly puts it: “Here or there. Dampling or landlocker. Sea or land. Man or woman. But this is something different. Don’t you see?” With her own physical abnormalities, Callanish belongs neither to land nor sea; or rather, she has the special privilege of claiming both places as home. The world is her oyster – and she and North are uniquely poised to shuck it.
Among the most vocal champions of the circus’s revolutionary potential are the clowns, whose performances are heavily policed by Red Gold – who also sees the risk of danger inherent in their acts. Safest is their bad bankers schtick, wherein they play the villains/scapegoats that the audience loves to hate. More incendiary are those performances that poke fun at religion and the military.
One of my few regrets – other than the book’s overall shortish length – is that Logan doesn’t follow up with the crew after their arrest. What becomes of the clowns after North’s escape? Just what does Cash hope to achieve with his gleeful boundary-pushing? So many unanswered questions there.
As an animal lover, The Gracekeepers isn’t always an easy read. Nonhumans are routinely mistreated in a myriad of ways. While I gave the animal-based food a pass as necessary for survival, the funerary customs involving the graces – for which the titular gracekeepers are named – are anything but. Specially bred to be small (to more easily fit in their cages), with blue-green feathers (representing land and sea), and short life spans (for a manageably brief period of mourning), these birds are imprisoned in cages that are used to mark new graves. The graces metaphorically mourn a person’s death; and when they die of starvation – for they are never fed – the period of mourning is considered over. Their tiny bodies are tipped into the sea – yet who grieves for them?
Graces endure a brutal, unhappy life, and an even crueler death; one made all the more unthinkable by its frivolity; one to which Callanish has become accustomed: “Whatever she did, she could not save them.”
Yet this seems perfectly characteristic of a species that has (presumably) so drastically altered the face of its planet. One of the things I so love about The Gracekeepers is the ambiguity of its setting: it could take place on earth, hundreds of years in the future, when the effects of climate change have taken root and blossomed; or Callanish’s island could exist on another world entirely. A few breadcrumbs suggest the former – or, at the very least, a planet whose (d)evolution has taken a course similar to ours – and in this context, the poor graces seem right at home, amongst humans who have apparently learned little of kindness and compassion toward the natural world.
Ditto the bears and horses. The last of their kind – for large land mammals are largely a thing of the past, relegated to storybooks and (more often, as paper is scarce) oral stories – they endure a life in chains, forced to travel the sea and perform stupid tricks for their captors.
The ending may have made me a wee bit stabby, but even I have to admit that it makes perfect sense: this new world simply wasn’t made for bears.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Not as much as I expected. The Circus Excalibur doesn’t have a sideshow, so there aren’t any “freaks” on the crew. However, the fire-breather Bero is missing one arm. Also, the performers routinely blur the line between man and woman through their gender-fluid acts and appearances. Likewise, with her webbed feet and fingers (not to mention her magical scars/gills), Callanish skirts the line between landlocker and dampling, human and nonhuman. Last but certainly not least, Logan hints at a same-sex relationship between Callanish and North, though it’s only that: hints, with any physical relations taking place off-screen.
Animal-friendly elements: Not really. The Circus Excalibur features two animals acts: a dancing bear and horses. While North loves her bear and continually fears for him, she can do nothing to free him of his chains, and his confined, dreary dampling existence. The bear dies at the end – just like his father/mother – though the horses are rescued from a fire. Likewise, the graces endure great suffering. See my review for more.