Thursday, February 09, 2012

Young Adult: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

If, like me, you’ve grown up on Celtic folk tales, you’ll be familiar with the story of the human male who gets himself an otherworldly bride. With a few exceptions, it’s really only in modern YA paranormals that it’s the other way around.

Basically, there are two kinds: There’s the one where she’s the daughter of a king of the otherworld, whether it’s the sea or Faerie; and there’s the one where she’s a selkie (seal-maiden) whose skin is stolen while she’s dancing around in human form. There is always a condition -- the groom has to promise not to ask her certain questions, not to hit her without cause (Welsh -- The Physicians of Myddfai), not to see what she gets up to on Saturdays (Melusine, who is, in theory, the ancestress of the British royal family), or he has to keep her sealskin hidden because once she finds it, she’ll grab it and go home, even leaving her children by her land husband. Invariably, the husband breaks the contract, mostly by accident, and loses his wife and any wealth she brought with her.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (Allen and Unwin) asks: Yes, but what happens generations later when there are descendants of those seal maidens in a small community where presumably the gene pool is pretty small?

In the 19th century, Miskaella Prout is a girl none of the limited supply of men on the island of Rollrock wants to marry. After being treated as a minor goddess by the old folk and like dirt by everyone else, she discovers that she can actually draw girls out of the seals, without having to wait for them to drop their skins and dance in the moonlight. And those girls are absolutely gorgeous and better still, they’ll pretty much do as they’re told and go with the man who’s there when they emerge. This is a way not only to make a living but also to get revenge on all those other girls who managed to catch husbands.

It succeeds beyond her wildest dreams and Miskaella is rich, while the men all owe her money for their Stepford wives.

But the island’s culture changes, once the only girls left in town are seals -- and unlike the Ira Levin robots, these women have emotions and can be unhappy.

Sea Hearts (to be published in the U.S. and UK as The Brides of Rollrock Island) is a series of connected novellas, told from the viewpoints of a number of characters, including Miskaella herself. Despite this, there is still a twist at the end, when you realize that Miskaella didn’t tell you quite everything.

The writing is beautiful, your heart aches for those selkie girls and you can even understand why Miskaella is so bitter. It’s a fascinating take on the old folk tales, a wonderful “what if ... ?”

Margo Lanagan is one of the best writers of literary spec fic around. Her writing is always beautiful and she creates characters you can care for -- even if, like Miskaella, they’re ruining everyone else’s lives.

Damn, I wish I’d written this one. ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog, The Great Raven, can be found at

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