Image Description: Aditi Ramaswamy holding up one of their vast stash of selkie-themed books.
In January 2020 my life as an independent adult was in full swing. I lived in San Francisco, ate at restaurants which served things like sundubu-jjigae and roast trout, walked through historic neighbourhoods and stopped in at every bookshop I came across. It got to the point where employees at City Lights, the oldest bookshop in the city, began greeting me with “You again!” when I approached the checkout with an armload of books.
Twelve months have passed. The only bookshops I visit now are in my dreams (a surprising number of which are actually set in giant otherworldly libraries). However, that hasn’t stopped me from buying books, to the point where my mother recently pulled me aside and asked me if I needed some kind of literary withdrawal assistance. I power through 2–4 books a week, so I figured I should start compiling a list of the novels I’ve read & enjoyed during my time holed up like a naked mole rat (well, pyjama-clad mole rat, maybe):
(1) The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
Yes, this is a children’s book.
Yes, I almost teared up as I read it.
The Moorchild tackles one of my favourite topics in fantasy fiction––it is a changeling story. I am not, as far as I know, a changeling, but I acutely remember being The Misfit Child: the strange wide-eyed kid who talked to trees and spent lunch break wandering alone around the soccer field, pretending to be a mushroom farmer. (Why mushrooms? I wish I knew.)
McGraw captures this experience beautifully in her protagonist Saaski, who is half-fey and half-human and finds herself excluded from both worlds. The book’s little details––from mentions of rush-lights, to discussions of herbal magic & runes, to the scenes set in Underhill (the Fair Folk’s realm)––paint a rich historical setting. As a huge mythology buff, I loved the thoroughness of McGraw’s research and world-building. Saaski herself is a lovely character, precocious without being grating and relatable whilst retaining a distinctive personality.
I’ve seen a few complaints that the book is “slow” and didn’t involve enough magical elements, but I think that’s part of its charm. Saaski may not be human––but at the core, her story is.
(2) The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
This is also a children’s book, and I’m recommending it with one strong caveat.
The novel’s opening plunges the reader into a dazzling, strange world, one distantly related to early modern Scotland and flavoured with magic. Corinna––or Corin, as she calls herself––is a Folk Keeper. What is a Folk Keeper? Great question. It’s hinted that they’re some sort of folklorist, a person who specialises in placating a vicious underground race called “the Folk”. This is, of course, a reference to the Fair Folk in Scottish mythology, many of whom are significantly less sparkly and sweet than Disney would have you believe. Billingsley makes good use of the creepiness which is inherent in Scottish mythology, and weaves in one of my favourite myths as a central plot point. (to name it would be a spoiler, so I’ll refrain from doing so). Even though it’s a kids’ book, I actually did find myself shaken by how dark it got at times.
Billingsley’s prose is incredible. It captivates you from the start, and leaves you hungry for more. That’s the problem with this book: it’s too short. The world it creates is so fascinating and layered, but it felt like Billingsley got impatient and rushed through it without stopping to provide more detail and characterisation. It’s a gorgeous skeleton of a novel. I’ve heard better things about her other book, Chime, but I haven’t tackled that yet.
(3) The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Selkies! I love selkies. I’m not generally big on fluffy cuddly animals, but seals are an exception. There’s something inherently huggable about them. Harp seals look like living pillows. Whenever I freak myself out by reading too many horror stories, I make a beeline for Google Images and scroll through pictures of fat happy seals until the world feels alright again.
I digress. Selkie myths fascinate me, and I’m constantly seeking out books which really do them justice. Brides is one of those. It tells the selkie myth from a set of unique perspectives––not just from the fisherman husband’s view, which is often the only one present in traditional myths, but from the selkie’s herself, as well as children’s. Perhaps the most interesting viewpoint is that of Misskaela the seal witch, a woman twisted by the heavily traditional, male-dominated culture of Rollrock. Her revenge on Rollrock’s denizens, which forms the meat of the book, is as understandable as it is horrific.
This is easily the most disturbing book on my list, even though it never gets graphic with its violence or sexual content. Although it’s labelled Young Adult, it doesn’t feel like a typical Young Adult book. It’s a novel written for those like me, who are hesitant to pick up YA lit.
I have one bone to pick. I really wish Lanagan hadn’t written the fat characters as grotesque due to their size. I don’t think she set out to deliberately propagate that attitude––it felt like she was perhaps trying to include that as part of her commentary on the ridiculous nature of women’s beauty standards. But that point didn’t quite carry across, and the end result just came across as “fat witch = revolting and evil”. It’s disheartening to see this in an otherwise exquisitely written book.
(4) The Visitors by Simon Sylvester
A murder mystery! Interwoven with selkie mythology! I’m a sucker for supernatural murder mysteries, so I had to pick this one up.
The Visitors’s plot is pretty standard for YA fiction. Seventeen-year-old Flora lives on a tiny Scottish island. Her small-town existence is dull, save for three things: the steady stream of men who have gone missing over the last six months; her new neighbour, Ailsa Dobie; and her school project, which draws her into the surprisingly dark world of selkie stories.
Sylvester knows his stuff when it comes to Scottish mythology. He references a lot of great traditional tales, and emphasises the fact that selkies weren’t always seen as benign creatures. Over time, selkies have become the “good” mer-people of Orkney folklore, while the Finfolk have taken the role of their evil counterparts. That distinction used to be far less clear; selkies in old myths have done some awful things, from drowning men to encouraging adultery. This dim view of selkies is balanced out by Ailsa’s presence: she too is knowledgeable, and provides Flora with a different side of the story.
The missing-men mystery is, well, a little less developed. I’d have liked more characterisation for the men and more investigation by Ailsa and Flora. Instead, Sylvester spends a sizeable chunk of his 368-page novel on describing things like the cardboard-cutout school bully and Ailsa and Flora’s drinking exploits. There’s also some really unnecessary graphic sexual content which adds literally nothing to the plot, and could have been replaced by something less, you know, puke-worthy. It’s unfortunate, because his prose is enjoyable and he does capture a bored, bright, seventeen-year-old’s viewpoint well––but he bogs down his own story with so much nonsense that it feels scattered. The culprit responsible for the disappearances is predictable––but maybe if Sylvester had spent more time on building the story and less on portraying the rampant alcoholism of every character, he’d have been able to change that fact.
This was my least favourite book on the list. That’s not to say it was bad. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I felt like it had a ton of potential, but ultimately fizzled out into a cliché-storm with pretty writing.