Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: The Witch Sea

The Witch Sea, by Sarah Diemer, is a short lesbian fantasy tale with a very small cast of characters, a gloomy island setting and a young woman struggling with defining her own identity.

It is available for free Kindle download on Amazon.

This story has a great deal to recommend it.  This is no angst over the character's sexuality. Meriel has always known she had no interest in men. This doesn't cause her any anxiety, although she felt she could not tell her mother. Not because her mother would necessarily object to her lesbianism, but because Meriel was expected to have a child to carry on the family business.

The questioning of why Meriel was continuing the family tradition of holding the curse in place was central to the plot. What did she really gain from it? What does it cost her? How reasonable is that family expectation? It's a question most people have to face in one way or another, so it resonates with readers.

I also liked the exploration of how isolation and being overburdened with expectation can shape a person's character. Meriel has been alone since she was 15, when her mother died. Her current age is never stated, but she doesn't feel more than maybe her early 20's. Until Nor arrives on her island, it seems she's only known perhaps two other people. That limited perspective, that knowing only what she's been taught by her mother and grandmother, having no genuine knowledge of the outside world, that resonates as well, echoing the questions we ask ourselves as we leave home for the first time. Is the world really what I've been told it is? Is it really as dangerous? Is it really as wonderful? Is it worth leaving this place of safety to find out for myself? These are the questions Meriel wrestles with and they are universal questions.

The story was told from Meriel's perspective, so we have only her view of the other characters, but Nor came across as perceptive and thoughtful, wiser than her age would suggest. Perhaps this is because she's really a seal magically transformed into something resembling human and thus her personality naturally tends toward it, but she is the more pensive of the two. We see her evaluate the situtation, both on Meriel's island and on the sea folk island. We see her approach to Meriel soften and shift, we see her begin to understand the toll this life is taking on the other woman, see her understand that both islands are prisons, that no one is free or living fully. We see her embrace Meriel not as a jailer but as a fellow prisoner, allowing Meriel to see for the first time what it is to be valued, not for any magical ability, but simply because she is.

There are sex scenes in the story, but they are not graphic. It's not a total fade-to-black, but focuses more on kisses and emotions. A great deal is left to the imagination, which works in this situation. It feels in keeping with the tone of the story, not like the writer just doesn't want to write lesbian sex. This isn't a story about physical things, it is a story about souls and imprisonment and working your way to freedom.

The only thing I wish this story had included are scenes from Nor's point-of-view. She, along with Meriel, is the key player in this story and yet we only see her through Meriel's eyes. I understand that decision; this is, after all, Meriel's story. And yet, I can't help but wonder what was going on in Nor's mind. I like to believe, as Meriel does, that Nor is being truthful and not manipulative. That while she was sent to entice Meriel to drop the curse, her feelings for genuine and not faked to get what she wanted. And so, I will. Because this is a lovely story of growing up, making your own decisions and setting yourself free, although some readers may not be comfortable with the vagueness of the ending. I thought the ending was in keeping with the rest of the story: You're never quite certain what the full consequences of your actions will be, but you have to make the choices that are most true to you despite not having full knowledge of the future.

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