The Tuesday List: Selkie Stories are for SFF Lovers

Bear with me.

I’m not into the kind of paranormal fiction that features werewolves and other shape changers, but for some reason selkies really intrigue me.  So here’s a list of stories with Selkies, some short stories, some not.

  1. “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar, as published in The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.

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This quick read takes the familiar mythology of the selkie and gives it a modern twist.

 

2. “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon, also as published in The New Voices of Fantasy.

This isn’t about actual, named Selkies, but Jackalopes, which also change to human women by shedding their skin.

3. The Story of the Selkie in Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden.  Like all the tales in this book, it’s monstrous and wondrous and a little tragic, all rolled into one.

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4. The Promethean Age novels, by Elizabeth Bear, featuring Uisgebaugh, a Kelpie, which is of course not actually a Selkie, but it is a mythical creature that lives in water and can take human form.  But in this case, it’s a horse, not a seal, and it usually becomes a man when it takes human form.  Oh, and also it eats people.  But if you’re into fae-based fantasy with a touch of urban and a lot of people making questionable decisions, this series is for you.

 

5. Song of the Sea, a 2014 animated film from the people who created The Secret of Kells, it’s about Ben and his younger sister Saoirse, who must discover the secret of their mother’s life and death in order to save Saoirse’s life and return to their lighthouse-keeper father.  It’s adorable, and well-animated, and has really neat music and sound effects.

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A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Growing
up the younger son of a rich family, made rich from the pepper trade on the
mainland, Jevick has learned that there is a price for everything.   Living in the Tea Islands to the
south of the great empire of Olondria, Jevick’s life is simple, fed on stories
of such wonder that when he has the opportunity to go, he can’t help but take
it.  He believes he is
prepared.  He has read the great
books, been tutored in the language. 
But there are some things you can’t learn simply from books.

A
coincidental meeting with a young woman, ill of a wasting sickness, going to
Olondria with her mother to seek a cure, reminds Jevick of his home, of and all
he is leaving behind, but it is not enough to stop him from fully immersing
himself in Olondrian culture, buying books wherever he can, and succumbing to
the magic of a place he has dreamed about nearly all his life.  The magic of Olondria has always been
in the books, in their ability to call up stories and people long dead, but in
giving himself over to Olondria, Jevick finds himself drawn into a struggle not
of his making. 

A Stranger in Olondria is, structurally,
a descendant of Tolkien’s works. 
Samatar plants the seeds for her world’s cultures through the stories
they tell, the stories Jevick hears and reads during his travels.  But where Tolkien was hampered by his
pastoralism, Samatar’s novel is a triumph of both storytelling and wonder.  The novel’s use of Jevick as
first-person narrator allows it to position its atmosphere of awe and nostalgia
against the regret and injustice elicited by its plot structure without
becoming too grandiose to be affective. 
The story that Jevick tells is relatively short, but juxtaposed against
the huge history of the world he traverses, the novel has a grand scope that
will make readers feel they are reading a much longer tale.

Those
who enjoy the storytelling devices used by writers like Tolkien will enjoy
Samatar’s mythologizing and the epic scale of A Stranger in Olondria. 
Those who are captivated by “stranger in a strange land” stories will
enjoy following Jevick as he is immersed in a culture he has grown up loving second-hand.  Readers looking for a novel they can
slow down and savour need look now further than A Stranger in Olondria.

Tracing Our Lineage

No, this isn’t going to be about ancestry or anything like that, at least not in a literal, Biblical sense.

I read a book a while back (maybe a month, I read a lot of books, so sometimes it seems like longer), called The Country of Ice Cream Star, and while it was a very engrossing dystopian novel about a young woman–an extremely compelling young woman–named Ice Cream Star, I was most taken by the way in which the author, Sandra Newman, adds a mythology of the world ending and then what happened after.  My intention was–still is–to write an essay on mythologized dystopias, but I had an idea today and thought I’d throw it out there.

Do you remember reading the first few books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (be honest, we all know everyone read The Wheel of Time, or at least knew someone who was reading The Wheel of Time in the late 90′s), and being intrigued by the feeling of loss Jordan slipped into the narrative every time something came up about the world before the Breaking?  Sometimes I think the best reason for the Forsaken coming back–besides driving the world towards another inevitable Breaking–was so that we could get more of a feel for how amazing the world used to be, and how much the current tiny humans don’t know they’re missing out on, and then feel sad about it.  It was this lack of mythology, an almost immediate pulling away from interrogating the history of the ridiculous and blood-soaked world of Westeros–and don’t forget the vast, unknowable, Orientalized lands of the Dothraki, et al–that really made me lose an interest in A Song of Ice and Fire, long before the rape and murder and rape and rape.

But I digress.

The point is, The Wheel of Time, epic fantasy explosion of words that it is, is also in its way an ancestor of the modern fantasy dystopia that we all know and love and make movies out of.  The Wheel of Time gets lumped into big stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire a lot because of the pseudo-medieval world-building but really, Jordan wrote a woman-centric story that actually uses the bloodlines of people to trace the history of the world and teach people what they need to know to lead in this new, crappy world they’ve inherited.  Now, critiques about the specific ways that Jordan wrote women aside, both The Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire were pretty patriarchal and while some commenters may have thought that Jordan’s characters tended to emote a lot rather than behaving like stoic, repressed adults, Jordan actually gave his characters time to think about how their shared past had led to the world as they knew it in the present, and what they wanted for the future (presumably less Breaking of the World).  All of the main characters were getting themselves out there and living and feeling and doing, just like the generally more uninhibited ragamuffins and vagabonds we’re used to finding in our post-apocalyptic worlds.

So anyway, The Country of Ice Cream Star. Ice Cream is part of one of the many small-ish groups of people who now inhabit the north east of the United States–Massa Woods–who roam about looting suburban housing developments that have been abandoned after a medical/ecological catastrophe that only hinted at and never really been named within the novel. Though people generally learn how to read and learn an oral history of their groups, very little knowledge has survived which tells how they got there, or why people only live until about twenty years of age before dying from cancer-like symptoms (think: the half-lives in Mad Max: Fury Road).  Every sign or billboard that Ice Cream encounters, every piece of equipment that no longer works, has a story that the inhabitants of her world have created, but it often bears little resemblance to the story a reader could construct–a reader of this modern era–from the same clues.  

A lot of our ability as readers to really inhabit the modern dystopia or post-apocalyptic novel, I think, comes from early exposure to stories like The Wheel of Time, and the long string of long-winded storytelling it engendered.  No one, I think, would be able to keep faith with either Rothfuss or Sanderson if they hadn’t first kept up with, and then survived Jordan’s death during, The Wheel of Time’s run.  Sure, we have many dystopian novels which lay out the world’s past in grinding detail–The Hunger Games, the Divergent books–but those stories trace their lineage more to a Orwellian heritage than to Jordan or Brooks or any of the other 90s epic fantasy writers I’m sure my many, many readers will tell me about when they reblog this.  After all, The Lord of the Rings found its standing in the late 90′s and on into today, where now a little bit of nostalgia will get you nine-plus hours of CGI orcs and rocks.  All of our beloved comics are getting rebooted in films that trace character origin-stories and try to make us forget the days of Cartoon-Batman and the Riddler.  We want to understand how it all could have come to be.  I’d wager that we survived Oryx and Crake’s literary incursion into fantasy genre-space because enough readers had got used to the idea of a secret history related in disparate parts through various characters.

And so on.

I’d love to hear what other readers have to say about mythology in dystopia, and dystopia in fantasy.  And of course I never mean to write exhaustively about anything because there’s a good deal I’ve read and forgotten, and even more I haven’t read.

Maybe someday I’ll get around to a more literary post about this topic.