S.M. Wheeler’s Sea Change, along with Bennett Madison’s September Girls, are not quite last two novels on the James Tiptree Jr. Award shortlist for 2013 that I haven’t yet discussed in this column. (I haven’t talked about Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince yet—nor N.A. Sulway’s winning Rupetta, for which paper copies are thin on the ground.)
Warning: Contains spoilers.
Sea Change is a striking novel. Set in a fairytale version of early modern Europe, its protagonist, Lilly, is the lonely child of emotionally distant parents. Her only friend is the kraken Octavius. They grow to adulthood together, meeting on the shores of the ocean near Lilly’s home. But when Octavius goes missing and Lilly’s father demands she leave home, she sets out on a quest to find—and to rescue—her friend. The quest will exact from her a terrible price, not once, but many times, culminating in her decision to trade her memories of her friendship with Octavius for his freedom.
Wheeler has a light, distanced voice and an occasionally brilliant turn of phrase that shows to good effect when she’s describing her world’s weirdnesses. Sea Change’s approach to magic reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth, or Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn: magic is wild and powerful and terrible, and every bargain one makes with a magical being—a troll, a dark-wife, a skinless witch—comes at a dreadful cost. For a map to find Octavius, Lilly trades her womb and her hair, becoming a bald androgyne; for a magic coat to trade for his freedom, she must rescue an undead tailor from a pair of bandits, becoming their servant and walking a thin line between obeying them and satisfying the witch who has bound Lilly to her service. And at last, what she must trade for Octavius is her understanding of why she went through so many trials on his behalf: she can save her friend, but only at the cost of everything his friendship meant.
It’s a dark novel, and a powerful one; yet at the same time oddly playful. It is deeply weird and yet its emotional core holds strong and true. It is a book about heroism and friendship, and a strongly moving one: I recommend it as well worth everyone’s time.
Bennett Madison’s September Girls, on the other hand, is a book whose appeal I found rather baffling. Our narrator is a seventeen-year-old called Sam. In the wake of his parents’ break-up, his father drags him and his older brother Jeff off for a summer at the beach. But this beach, in addition to the usual array of holiday-goers, is populated by the Girls: mysterious young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, all blonde, all sexy, all indefinably alike. The Girls, the reader learns before Sam does, are not exactly human: they come from the sea and return to the sea and labour under a curse that can only be broken by having sex with a virgin boy.
Sam is rather mystified to find himself the focus of attention among the Girls, particularly when his older brother Jeff is the hot one of the pair of them. The novel focuses, if it can be said to focus on much, on his relationships with his family and with two of the Girls, DeeDee and Kristle. The story possesses the form and logic of a fairytale, but lacks the power and strangeness that gives Sea Change its force. It is in many respects deeply annoying. For when it comes to the Girls, it represents them as shaping themselves almost exclusively to use their femininity as a weapon or a tool against men; capable of being saved—rescued; given form and definition separate from the others—literally by a male gaze and a magic penis. (It is good at describing the patriarchy, but not necessarily at undermining the patriarchal worldview as much as its conceit needed for it to really work.)
The novel is prettily written, with a strong voice—Sam’s an endearing sort of clueless idiot—but ultimately it left me cold. It’s the first of the novels on the 2013 Tiptree shortlist to leave me feeling less than entirely pleased that I’ve read it: I hope it’s the last.