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There’s a subtle and wild magic present in Kirsty Logan’s first novel, The Gracekeepers. Think Waterworld meets the Big Top meets Scottish myth; throw in a bear and two indomitable female protagonists for good measure.
From the opening line—“The first Callanish knew of the Circus Excalibur was the striped silk of their sails against the grey sky”—Logan sets the stage for a confluence of worlds. And strange (though not unbelievable) these worlds are: Callanish is a “landlocker,” one of the privileged few who live on land; North is a “dampling,” a person whose life is lived at sea, and she’s also a member of the Circus Excalibur, earning her bread by performing for landlockers each night, traveling from island to island, archipelago to archipelago.
Callanish—noble, restrained, born privileged—lives out her days in a self-imposed semi-exile as a gracekeeper, alone in a tiny floating house, overseeing seaside burials and tending the graces (caged birds, carefully bred and starved) that mark the watery graves. Locked up tight inside, Callanish harbors big secrets and a debilitating, learned shame. North, on the other hand, is a spitfire, and has lived her entire life as a spectacle. She’s uneasy on land, committed and unswerving in her love for the sea; the only thing she loves more is the bear she performs with nightly. North has her own secrets to hold dear from her circus family, because like any good family, it roils with ambition, gossip, affection and fear—she stands to lose everything if her truths are revealed.
For both women, indeed for every character in this imaginative, beautifully wrought novel, danger is a way of life, a lurking menace all have learned to abide with. The Gracekeepers unfolds like a slow, sinuous, troubling dance, moving Callanish and North closer and closer to each other—and once their worlds momentarily collide, in the aftermath of an enormous storm, there is no going back.
It’s easy to lose yourself in The Gracekeepers. Logan’s rich tapestry of characters and storylines, her deft language and her exquisitely built world add up to a deep, intriguing, and accessible novel. This is speculative fiction at its finest—a new reality so well drawn it seems only a hair’s breadth removed from the one we’re currently in.
Callanish and North carry the weight of this new world on their shoulders, but they are also young women riddled with the worries young women are always grappling with: society’s expectations of beauty, unintended pregnancy, how to earn a living, what it means to fall in love and make a family outside of the norm. As with the best of all literary characters, Callanish and North draw you in, allowing a window on their lives, and what is glimpsed there won’t soon be forgotten.
The Gracekeepers is a brilliant novel, remarkably executed and an absolute joy to read. Kirsty Logan renders the personal and political struggles of this story with skill, imbuing even the smallest details with beauty and wisdom. Dive in, and let this tale carry you out to sea.
By Kirsty Logan
Hardcover, 9780553446616, 304 pp.