In Kirsty Logan’s watery debut, the world as we know it still exists, only it is entirely underwater. Eerie and poetic, The Gracekeepers has been dubbed a dystopia, but it actually reads much more like a regular fantasy. Small scraps of land are all that remain of earth’s continents after rising water levels, leaving humanity in two groups: “clams,” the lucky few who cling to the land and “damplings,” those that must live out on the sea. The two groups have an uneasy relationship: half-mistrustful, half-fascinated by one another.
Our story opens with North, a dampling who is part of the Excalibur, a floating circus that performs across the islands and archipelagos for the clams who live on land. There are sinister clowns, horse riders, acrobats and a ringmaster that seems to have more glitter in his veins than blood. North’s is one of the star acts of the circus, as she performs a tragic act of death and resurrection with a bear she’s had since childhood. North and the bear have a strange and relationship, sharing a bunk in her small boat, the bear teetering between tame and wild, North constantly trying to keep him passive.
After a tragic accident, the circus seeks out a Gracekeeper — an individual responsible for burial rites of the deceased. The Gracekeepers lead solitary lives on tiny one-person islands, keeping birds out in cages far out to sea to represent the mourning period for a person who’s died. Said Gracekeeper is Callanish, a mysterious white-slippered, white-gloved girl with something to hide. As soon as she sets eyes upon North, something inexplicable passes between the girls and the rest of the novel centres around their paths crossing and not crossing, and being haunted by the strange bond they shared.
The Gracekeepers reads like something between Station Eleven, The Night Circus and (to lower the tone) Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Unlike other dystopias out there (and I’m still not sure I agree with this label), it is much more slow moving than the usual frenetic attempts to topple an unjust government. Ursula Le Guin has praised the novel as haunting and mysterious, but the most enchanting part of the story is the language itself. It is self-consciously poetic and takes much more of a centre-stage than the plot itself. The characters take their names from places around and near Scotland: Jarrow, Avalon and Whitby, now long disappeared beneath the water, and it becomes apparent that there are many subtle allusions to the world that once was, though Kirsty Logan never goes into the origins of her world at all.
Whilst Station Eleven and The Night Circus had a compulsive feel to them that drove the plot forwards, The Gracekeepers takes its pacing much more slowly. Rather than the onslaught of waves it describes, the story eddies along with more of a trickle. It wasn’t until North and Callanish first met that the plot really got going, and even then it seemed to meander around before really coming together. Thrillseekers won’t come away satisfied, but for those who can appreciate the subtle dynamics of a poetically described world, The Gracekeepers is a book for you.
I agree with Rachael’s assessment that The Gracekeepers doesn’t read as “dystopia;” there’s a clear sense that the story takes place in a world which is post-apocalypse, but the characters and narratives are more concerned with day-to-day survival than anything grander. Kirsty Logan takes her time exploring character motivations, actions, and reactions, and the novel is generally quite enjoyable. I especially liked seeing characters through one another’s eyes, as that approach created layers of meaning and misinterpretation in a skillful way.
Where I felt that the novel faltered was in the “connection” between North and Callanish; I didn’t get a sense for why the two women became borderline obsessed with each other after an evening of conversation. Most of the other character interactions and backgrounds were explored well, so this blank space was particularly noticeable to me.
The novel definitely has a drifting, dream-like quality, focusing more on the internal lives of the circus performers than detailed explanations of their performances or heart-pounding action sequences. If you’re in the mood for something slow and thoughtful, I’d recommend The Gracekeepers.