Book Review: The Blue Salt Road

The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), is a modern folk tale from a master storyteller. It takes the legend of the selkies – seals that can temporarily shed their skins to become people – and weaves a dark tale of passion, loss and revenge.

On an island in the cold north sea, where for weeks in winter the sun barely rises, a community of hunters live with their families. Successful among them is John McCraiceann who wields the harpoon that enables boatmen to kill sea creatures – including dolphins, seals and the lucrative whales. John has a daughter, Flora, who seeks a husband more exciting than those available locally. Her grandmother has shared the secret of how she may capture a lover from the sea.

A young man of the Grey Seal clan has ignored his mother’s stark warnings and visits the island. Intrigued by the people there he sheds his skin and explores while they shelter in their houses after dark. When Flora approaches the coastline and makes her call he answers. He is happy with what she offers, unaware of her plans for him.

Too late the young man realises what Flora has done. Her cunning forces him to attempt to assimilate. To survive he must eat, drink and work as the island people do. He cannot fathom why this feels so wrong.

John convinces the skipper of the boat he works on to accept his strange, new apprentice – both men are happier out at sea than on land. The hunters look to nature for their livelihood and do not regard the sea creatures as sentient. The selkie can no longer understand their songs but is aware that what he is required to do by his new peers is horrific.

Flora tamps down any guilt she feels, convincing herself that her actions were necessary. Her grandmother looks on from a distance, aware that she is responsible. Banished by her daughter there seems little she can do.

Although simply told there are many details that increase the tension. The tale is disturbing and recognisable in its depiction of humans with their casual and accepted violence. The reader is conscious of the peril the selkie finds himself in. Those who would help can only do so at great risk to themselves.

With such a story the denouement is key. It is dealt with deftly, although not all practical questions are answered. The author balances well the need to maintain inherent aspects of the various characters. Despite its dark heart the story is beautifully written and enhanced by exquisite illustrations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gollancz.

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Book Review: A Pocketful of Crows

A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne M. Harris, is a dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. The protagonist is a fourteen year old brown girl living wild and alone in woodland. She despises the restrictions under which the tame folk in the villages live with their trinkets and vanity, their societal rules and disconnection from nature. She has been warned by her people to stay apart so watches unseen, curious but content. Her special powers would be lost if she allowed these soft people to own her by bestowing a name.

The brown girl’s powers enable her to put herself inside other creatures. She flies with the birds, swims with the otters, hunts with the foxes and wolves. She will sometimes enter homes inside cats or rats to spy on residents. When not travelling in this way she rests in a hut she has built, eating the fish and small creatures she traps, the plants she picks. She wears garments sewn with feathers, stays warm under pelts.

A chance encounter, an act of kindness, brings the brown girl to the attention of the son of a wealthy landowner, stirring up new feelings she struggles to contain. She goes home with him believing his words of love, his promise of a golden ring. To be together requires assimilation and it is the brown girl who is expected to change. She pays a high price for her taming only to find that the young man is not as trustworthy as she had assumed.

The brown girl seeks advice from an elder. She must use the magic of her people to regain what she has lost if she is to survive this transformation she brought on herself. As the seasons turn and the villagers suffer hardships they look for someone to blame. The brown girl, having drawn their attention, is condemned as a witch. She must evade capture while she awaits the fruition of her carefully crafted vengeance. Nature may be beautiful but she is also merciless, as the brown girl must now be. Man’s power is shown to be weak, his beliefs fickle. Unlike the wild he has but one life and it is as nothing to an ancient earth.

I loved this story for the imagery, for the idea that such magic could exist. It offers a reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gollancz.

Book Review: The Gospel of Loki

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“primitive people always imagine their gods to be something like themselves”

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne M. Harris, tells the story of the trickster god from his point of view. It is a playful romp through Norse mythology, from Odin’s recruitment of Loki when he was lured from the underworld of Chaos through to the part each of them played in Asgard’s downfall at Ragnarok.

For all his cunning and double crossing, Loki considers himself much put upon. His high opinion of himself rarely falters, his less than admirable actions he excuses as being the result of treatment he has suffered. The gods are portrayed as a vain and posturing set so Loki should have fitted right in. Their reticence and subsequent contempt may have been justified given his unpredictable behaviour, but led in no small part to their undoing.

“So shoot me. It’s my nature.”

Loki wanted acceptance and admiration. He also had appetites and desires that others found distasteful. As with all the best anti-heroes he had a vulnerable side to his character which he did his best to suppress but which endears him to the reader. The more conventional gods had beauty, power, wealth and esteem, but were equally ruthless.

Loki used and was used. His pursuits may have been vainglorious but it is hard not to take his side in this telling of events. As he points out at the beginning of the tale, this is his story, history written from his point of view.

“Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s as least as true as the official version and, dare I say it, more entertaining.”

The myths around the trickster are all included, told in a light and beguiling manner which brings Loki to life. Structured into short chapters which string the tales involving him together, there are lessons that can be applied to modern life. I did think the overall lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, but it is still an engaging read.

This is not the Marvel universe version of events, although I did have Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in my head as I read. As ever, he played the part rather well.

Recommended for all those who know something of the Norse gods but would like to know more. Also for those who, like me, knew little before Marvel but wish to be educated.

 

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Gratuitous picture of Tom Hiddleston as Loki. You’re welcome.