REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember

REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; November, 2020), 368 pages.

This book falls into two categories I generally dislike (YA and fantasy), and yet I loved it. I may have written something similar in my last review of Ember’s books (of The Navigator’s Touch, back in 2018, here), but there are just some authors who do a genre beautifully, and whose writing doesn’t rely on the bells and whistles of the genre for its strength and effect (I, and many folks, feel this way about Octavia Butler, for instance). Ember is one of those authors for me. She can throw in a dragon (I hate dragons, to the point of it being a joke among my friends), and I’ll buy into it anyway.

There are no dragons in this book, but there is magic and high drama, and everything that usually makes me run away. But I was absolutely hooked from the first chapter.

Ruinsong is the story of a woman with special abilities who combines forces with her community—and another strong, smart woman—to overcome some evil and oppressive ruling forces and reset the culture to a new, more equitable government. Given the time period in the U.S., I couldn’t help but read it as a parable for our own contemporary situation. (‘Nuff said.) It is also the story of two women falling in love. And it is also the story of a woman struggling with her strength and abilities and how best to use them, ethically speaking.

In the world of the book, magic is achieved by singing; there are different kinds of mages here (ones who sing their effects onto plants, for instance, or those who can affect elements like water). The really dangerous ones are the “corporeal mages,” those who can create effects on the living body—heating parts of it to blistering, crushing bones, suffocating it and the like, but also healing it. The society is ruled by a queen—okay, I’ll say it: an evil queen—who has enslaved corporeal mages to help her keep the rest of the population under her control. Cadence is a corporeal singer forced to do terrible things to people in the name of the queen.

Remi is one of those done-to people, but she also turns out to be the one with whom Cadence forms a tight bond. Together, they mount a resistance to the queen, attempt to overthrow the government and take care of each other in the meantime.

The novel, as much as it builds a convincing, complete world of magic and castles (and it does), doesn’t rely on all that. Its true power is in the story of relationships between its characters and in the characterization of each one as believable, complete, compelling. The story itself is compelling, too—folks banding together to overcome seemingly-undefeatable oppressive forces.

I’ve read that the novel is a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera tale—Ember has done quite a bit to re-envision old tales through a feminist, queer lens (see, for instance, The Seafarer’s Kiss, a re-envisioning of “The Little Mermaid”). I’m not familiar with the original Phantom (neither LeRoux’s nor the Lon Chaney film nor Broadway’s), but this novel stands entirely on its own. I imagine that if one is familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, there is probably extra excitement in reading a feminist, queer, updated version of this tale, but one doesn’t need to know the original to really enjoy this one.

What I love here is the smart, unwavering ethics of this book, combined with the compelling story and perfect pacing Ember gives it. The world feels so complete and believable—there’s magic in it, yes, but there’s also dust and animal slobber on the dress sleeve, high drama mingling with mundane reality in a way that really works. It’s dark and bright, ugly-beautiful, and it pulls you in and keeps you there, so that after more than 350 pages, you’re still ready for more.

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…

Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.

Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.

Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.

This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.

The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.

I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?

Review: THE SEAFARER’S KISS by Julia Ember

The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (May 4, 2017); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Now, I don’t know any of the versions of the story known to most Americans as “The Little Mermaid” (neither Hans Christian Andersen nor Disney nor subsequent K-Mart bedspread mythos), but I believe The Seafarer’s Kiss is a retelling of the tale, but à la Wicked, retold empathetically from a different point of view (than, at least, the Disney version). As with all good retellings, this is a new story, not simply a recast rehashing of something already said.

I won’t waste your time with comparisons, since I’m not very familiar with any of the other versions of this story; this novel stands on its own, anyway. I’m living proof that you don’t need to have any connection to the Disney or Andersen stories to understand and like this book. The only thing I will say, based on admittedly brief internet-based research into the other versions, is that this one seems more feminist, featuring female characters prominently as more than victim or villain (those roles get really complex here), constructing a kind of Handmaid’s Tale empathy for the conditions under which the female mermaids must function, and coloring every character’s actions with real motivations that extend further than simply stating that someone is an Evil Witch.

I’m trying not to reveal the actual story here, the discovery of which is part of the fun of reading, so forgive the verbal gymnastics.

This is, at its heart, a really strong character study. Don’t mistake me: I mean this in the best of ways, as all good stories, in my opinion, are character studies. Too many novels rely too strongly on plot and forego character development at all, but in my opinion, good insight into character should be what drives the plot at every turn. The plot of a good story should feel like a surprise as it happens, but inevitable once it does, because the characters are so well drawn that things could unfold no other way than the way they do. This is assuredly the case.

The titular seafarer, and the titular kiss she gives Ersel, the main character (is this the original form of Ursula, who is the sea witch in Disney’s version?), is what drives the plot, though not in the mooney-eyed-weak-princess way most Disney films seem to require. The chain of events that becomes Ersel’s adventure (and eventually the impetus for her growing up and finding her strength and her moral drive) starts with this girl, this kiss, but it’s merely the catalyst, and not the only driving force. Too often, female heroes are depicted as being solely motivated by love in their heroism. Not so here, and thanks for that. (Nor, for that matter, is Ersel’s “coming out” as being in love with a human girl much of a horror to anyone—and when there is discomfort, it’s with the “human” thing and the going-against-decree thing, not the “girl” thing. That’s refreshing.)

Basically, this is the story of a young mermaid who’s expected to be betrothed to her childhood bestie merman in a society in which reproductive heterosexual pairings are required due to a waning population (and in which, as a result, a girl’s worth is based on her potential fertility), but who bucks—and eventually upturns–the system, has her own adventures and her own ideas. She makes grave (I’m talking Shakespeare’s Mercutio-pun-grave) mistakes along the way, strives to address those mistakes, and becomes a better person, all without losing her fierceness. In fact, her fierceness becomes her great strength (no eternally slumbering and helpless princess, no mice to dress her, no unreal femininity clouds this up).

And K-Mart, as a result, probably won’t sell the bedspread. But, seriously, bedspreads are for sleeping princesses anyway.