The Gracekeepers is another circus book; one that comes as something of a disappointment after the glorious Gothickry of Nights at the Circus, which I reviewed on Friday. Set (we assume) in a post-climate change future in which the seas have risen to swallow most of the land, the novel follows two women, Callanish and North, as they navigate a society stratified into those rich enough to live on what little land remains (the landlockers, who control food supplies and thus have all the power) and the vast majority of humanity who scrabble out a living of sorts from the sea (the damplings, allowed to moor up to land only when the landlockers find it convenient).
North is the bear-girl of a travelling circus whose ringmaster Red Gold wants her to marry his son Ainsel to ensure that his descendants have a place on the land once more; little realising that she’s pregnant, and not with Ainsel’s child either. North is reluctant to dissuade him of the notion, knowing that if she does so he will kick her off the boat and she will lose her beloved bear. Much of the novel’s not-inconsiderable tension is driven by this predicament: will North and Ainsel ever manage to stand up to Red Gold? Will North’s child come before they get a chance?
As for Callanish, she is a gracekeeper: she lays those who have died at sea to rest in her graceyard at the equator, living a lonely life on a tiny buoy just big enough to hold her one-room hut. She’s chosen this self-imposed exile after something terrible she did in her life as a landlocker, and unravelling this (ultimately quite underwhelming) mystery is the other driver of the plot.
OK. So, as a circus story, The Gracekeepers is a novel that’s thinking about queerness, albeit in a way that feels rather simplistic after Nights at the Circus. (It may not be quite fair to compare the two, but I can’t help it.) It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Callanish and North, after a chance meeting at the beginning of the book, fall in love and spend the rest of the novel being vaguely driven together again; their eventual reunion is a chance for both of them to carve out a new space between land and sea, away from the conformist pressures of heteronormativity; it’s a way to mark out a new kind of life and escape the social order.
And it’s nice, yes, that the book doesn’t make much of a fanfare about their gender, doesn’t seek to label them or their relationship. It is, on the whole, a nice book, which is something dystopia rarely manages.
But – I felt that its gestures towards queering (as well as Callanish and North’s relationship, Logan also makes much of the androgynous gender play of the circus performers) weren’t really bolstered by any fierce revolutionary sentiment. The worldbuilding of The Gracekeepers is not scrupulous or necessarily very consistent (think Station Eleven rather than The Hunger Games), which can work for some narratives, but here it just felt as if it needed a better connection with political and social realities to achieve its project. The ending feels as if it’s trying to reach a metaphorical conclusion, an ideological resolution as well as a narrative one, that isn’t made explicit enough in the story. Its SFF trappings, ultimately, feel wasted and unnecessary and simply wrong for this kind of book.
I enjoyed reading it, and there are many good things about it. I just feel, in the end, that it’s a little inessential; that it missed its purpose in life.