The Gracekeepers is a dazzling novel with a beautifully imaginative and highly original setting. I really didn’t want it to end! It’s a delicious slow-burner (although it speeds up rapidly towards the end) and something in the way it’s written is quite dreamlike, similar to the tone of a fairy tale or folk story.
So, the premise: In a flooded world, society is deeply divided between landlockers, who occupy the small patches of remaining land, and damplings, who live at sea. North is a dampling who has lived and performed all her life on a touring circus boat with her bear. Callanish is an exiled landlocker who lives in the middle of the sea as a gracekeeper – she performs funerals, or Restings, and marks each mourning period by the lifespan of a bird called a grace. When their paths cross, each confides a secret to the other, and their bond continues to have an influence on them long after parting.
The problem was that her bear seemed hardly to remember her from day to day. She believed that he loved her, but he sometimes looked at her as if she were a stranger.
I’m not going to lie – one of the major reasons I was drawn to this book was the bear! And I wasn’t disappointed: the depiction of the bear was really interesting. In particular, the line between ‘tame’ and ‘wild’ was explored brilliantly – North sleeps under her bear’s front paw at night, but she is constantly aware that his “faulty memory” could cause him to turn on her or someone else at any moment.
The suppression of characters’ ‘true nature’ is a recurring theme: the bear’s wildness, Callanish’s webbed hands and feet, her longing to be in the sea. The circus acts are toned down to avoid offending the more conservative islands. Chapters that are told from other characters’ points of view (most chapters are split between North and Callanish) reveal an inner battle in nearly every character. The result is a complex layering of desires and fears of which the reader has an exclusively complete view.
The stand-out element of The Gracekeepers was, for me, the setting. The depth of detail is absolutely staggering. Even if the book had no plot, it would prompt consideration of a host of issues through the world-building alone, including religion, humankind’s relationship with nature, insular attitudes (literally and figuratively!), gender, freedom of expression and family.
Overall, The Gracekeepers is an enchanting read, which, through its beautiful writing style, transports you to an absolutely incredible world. Don’t miss it!
North fastened the canvas and slid under her bear’s warm frontpaw. His heart beat a thud-a-thud against her back as she let the waves rock them both to sleep.