Margo Lanagan is controversial. She writes borderline stuff, YA or possibly New Adult, a recent category. I first read her contemporary YA novel, Touching Earth Lightly, and didn’t much care for it.
And then she started writing fantasy and I changed my mind about her writing. Most of her fantasy tales are short stories, which appear in collections such as Black Juice, White Time, Red Spikes and Yellowcake. Her best-known, and most awarded and re-printed story, “Singing My Sister Down”, appears in Black Juice. It’s definitely for older kids, not for children! I won’t tell you what it’s about here, but it is terribly sad!
So, why is she controversial? Not in Australia, mind, but in the US. It’s her novel Tender Morsels, which is a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White And Rose Red. This is not a cute “Once upon a time” story, not the way Margo Lanagan tells it! It needs a very good reader, mid teens upwards. If you aren’t familiar with Snow White And Rose Red, it’s about two sisters who live with their mother in the forest. They meet a bear, who is of course an enchanted prince, and a terribly ungrateful dwarf, who yells at them every time they help him. You can probably guess how it ends, so I will go on to Margo Lanagan’s version. It starts with the mother as a young girl abused by her father, then by a bunch of local men who break in when they realise he is gone and rape her. Not nice, no, but that’s where the girls come from. The bear is a young man who comes from another universe in a bear suit - that is part of an annual ritual where he comes from, but in the girls’ world, he is a bear. The dwarf also comes from elsewhere and gets a bit more sympathy in this novel than he does in the original fairytale. It has had a lot of anger thrown at it in the US, as being unsuitable for teens, which didn’t prevent it from winning the World Fantasy Award and being a runner up in the Shirley Jackson Award(dark fantasy)and the Locus Award(YA section)
And then there is Sea Hearts, which is called The Brides Of Rollrock Island in the US and UK. It won the Children’s Book Council Award for best novel for older readers. It is an utterly beautiful book. It starts with the Celtic folktales about selkies, the creatures who can drop their sealskins and appear as humans. If you take away their sealskin, say, while they are dancing on the beach, they can’t turn back. In pretty much all those stories, a young fisherman or farmer sees and falls in love with a seal girl and steals her skin. Unable to go home, she marries him and he hides the skin to make sure it stays that way. But a few years later, one of their children finds it and innocently mentions it to his mother. She takes her skin, leaves husband and children and goes home. That’s how all these stories go.
So, what happens to the family left behind? It might well be what happens in Sea Hearts. Generations later, in 19th century Scotland, an island called Rollrock has descendants of these seal maidens, including a girl called Misskaella. Nobody likes her. The other girls bully her. None of the boys want her. But Misskaella has a power none of the other islanders do: she can call up a seal and draw a beautiful girl out of the skin. Actually, she can do that with male seals as well, but only does it once, when she is unbearably lonely. So, once she gets going, she finds a way to make a nice little living. All the men want a seal bride, including those who are already married. They are beautiful and good at housework and they pretty much do what they’re told, although they aren’t happy about it. After a while, the women leave and she and her apprentice are about the only human women left on the island. Selkie women can only produce boys. Well, they can have girls, but the girls can’t live on land; they have to go back to the sea and turn into seals. So, no brides for the next generation of teenage boys, unless they go to the mainland or - they can go to Misskaella when the time comes...
Unlike the Stepford wives of Ira Levin’s novel, these are flesh and blood women, who cope with their situation and love their sons, but are deeply unhappy. The book consists of linked novellas, seen from different viewpoints, including Misskaella herself and a teenage boy who, like the other boys, has a selkie mother. It’s as much about people as about “what if...?”
Margo Lanagan has also written for younger readers, including several under a pen name. I suspect those are out of print by now, but all her fantasy books are well and truly available in ebook and print, not only in Australia, but other countries. Check them out on your favourite bookseller site! Or your local library or favourite bookshop, of course.
Dave Luckett is a science fiction and fantasy writer who also has an extensive children’s and YA list. This Wikipedia article lists the various series he has written. The Tenabran trilogy is for teens, about the adventures of a young man, Will, and his friends trying to save the world - it has been a long time since I read the books, A Dark Winter, A Dark Journey, A Dark Victory. I do remember one scary scene in which the body of a long dead Abbess is climbing from her tomb to attack the heroes. There are “goblins” in this world, but they are just another type of human who suffer racism. The Tenabran trilogy books are available in Kindle, but you may have to go to AbeBooks for print copies. Well worth the effort! The site also offers ebooks and audiobooks of his Rhianna series for younger readers. iBooks offers several Rhianna audiobooks.
|US edition of a Rhianna book|
Actually, it looks like you can mostly only get his work in ebook or audiobook these days, which is a shame. Get them anyway! Relax, lie back and listen...