A Sapphic Nova Scotia Gothic: A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland cover

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I couldn’t tell you why, but I am obsessed with sapphic selkie stories. There are very few of them out there, but I leap on the chance to read any that I stumble upon. Don’t get me wrong: I like sapphic mermaids, too, but there’s something about a sapphic selkie story that hooks me like no other. So it’s not surprise that A Sweet Sting of Salt was one of my most anticipated releases of the year.

This is such an immersive story. It’s a Nova Scotia gothic, and I could feel the spray of waves crashing against rocks as I read it. Sutherland describes this seaside town in loving detail, even as the main character has a less rosy view of it. Jean has been an outsider since she was caught with another woman when she was younger. Her girlfriend was sent away to marry a French man—despite not being able to speak French—to Jean’s heartbreak. Luckily, Jean was taken in by the local midwife, and now she has earned the town’s begrudging respect as an extremely skilled midwife herself.

Helping someone give birth is an everyday occurrence for Jean, but not the way it happens this night. She wakes up to the sound of a woman screaming outside and finds a stranger in labour outdoors in the middle of a storm. She brings Muirin inside and helps her, though Muirin doesn’t speak any English. Jean finds out that Muirin is the wife of her neighbour Tobias, but it’s very strange that Tobias didn’t let her know about the pregnancy, and Muirin is reluctant to go home.

As you’d expect from a gothic, the tension and danger slowly ratchets up over the course of the story. First, we get to see Muirin and Jean become friends as Jean teaches her English and assists with the baby. Jean’s mother committed suicide shortly after she was born, so she’s attentive to new mothers’ mental states, determined to prevent that from happening to any of her charges. Soon, though, she finds herself falling for Muirin in spite of her best efforts not to.

Maybe it’s inevitable in this sort of story, but I was surprised that the main character doesn’t find out that Muirin is a selkie until well into the book. It’s in the marketing, so the reader knows right away. I don’t love having information the main character doesn’t for that long, but that’s a personal preference.

By the end of A Sweet Sting of Salt, I was reminded of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.” “The Girl With the Green Ribbon” and “The Selkie Wife” share a similar premise, a women’s horror story: the idea of sacrificing everything for your husband/children and it not being enough. Women are so often expected to be completely subsumed by the role of wife and mother until there’s nothing left that’s just theirs. These feminist retellings make that message shine through, and they show that a truly loving and equitable relationship means being able to keep something for yourself.

I liked the dynamic between the practical to a fault Jean and mysterious, passionate Muirin. Muirin picks up language at an unnatural rate, so they are able to communicate even when they don’t completely share a language. I also appreciated the side characters, including Jean’s mentor midwife and mother figure, who is Indigenous, and a character who is coded autistic. I always appreciate when historical fiction has a diverse cast. We also get to see how Jean’s former girlfriend’s life turned out, which was a pleasant subversion of my expectations.

While I didn’t like knowing the reveal hundreds of pages before the main character did, that was a pretty minor complaint. A Sweet Sting of Salt was an immersive read perfect for fans of queer retellings, folklore, gothics, and seaside settings.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)

Kayla Bell reviews “Create My Own Perfection” by E.H. Timms

"Create My Own Perfection" by E.H. Timms

“Create My Own Perfection” is a short story by E. H. Timms that comes out at the beginning of next month. It’s a retelling of the Medusa myth that centers the wronged, titular woman and incorporates elements from other mythologies. I really enjoyed it, and I think anyone who is interested in a unique, refreshing look on the myth would too.

This is a short story and because it’s so short, I won’t go too much into detail about the plot. Here are the bare bones: our protagonist is a college student and medusa who helps her selkie friend through a tough situation. “Create My Own Perfection” is a very quick read, and I encourage you to go in without any preconceived expectations.

I absolutely love seeing asexual and aromantic representation in fiction, especially in science fiction and fantasy protagonists. Asexuality is really at the center of this narrative. For those of you who are unfamiliar with asexuality, this might be a good story to understand what the experience is like for people that are asexual and aromantic. The author turns asexuality and aromanticism into a beautiful fantasy. Reading that was quite refreshing, especially given how much hatred, exclusion, and invalidation ace and aro people face in the world.

On the other side of that same coin, this story also centered the beauty and importance of friendship. I loved this aspect of it. Why aren’t there more stories in fantasy and science fiction where friendship is treated as just as important as romance? Or every genre, for that matter? That’s another thing that makes this story unique and different. This story’s protagonist is one that would do anything for their friend and it is lovely.

Gods and goddesses reimagined as modern folk is not new, but this story also did that in a fun way. I especially liked the fashion descriptions of the different deities, that really gave me a sense of imagery and brought me into the story. Overall, the description in general is quite vivid. It made the very fast read worth the time for me and helped to reinforce the emotional aspects of the piece.

A queer retelling of Greek mythology with elements of other folklore was exactly what I needed to refresh my reading. Readers should know that the story includes aphobia/amisia, and harassment. “Create My Own Perfection” is available for preorder now.

Shira Glassman reviews Eelgrass by Tori Curtis

Eelgrass by Tori Curtis is an intimidating book to review because reading it was such a powerful experience that I’m scared of failing to do it justice. It mirrors its protagonist’s span of two worlds — she’s a selkie so both the sea and the shore communities are home — inasmuch as it comfortably straddles Irish historical fantasy and literary fiction (as well as lesfic!) It’s firmly woman-centered; most of the characters are women whose motivation is keeping other women safe.

This is the kind of book where a selkie asks a siren the What are we relationship question. I will reproduce the following deliciously incongruous quote here: “Around here, people decide they want to get to know each other and they — they court. And if that goes well, they marry. Are we courting?” This juxtaposition of conservative, period-piece village daintiness with a literal seal-woman and a bloodthirsty mermaid, I mean, freaking sign me up and sell me the Extras package.

The core of the story is Efa’s drive to rescue her best friend and fellow selkie Bettan from the fate every selkie woman knows about from birth–if a human man gets a hold of your sealskin, you become bound to him. When we finally get to see this up close, it’s a sort of emotional slavery that’s as subtle as feathers but harsh and binding below the surface.

Bettan and Efa’s relationship is the foundation of the book’s story, and I’m very drawn to stories of women as rescuers, especially of each other. I also really like how intense but platonic they were together, because it reaffirms that f/f and f-f friendship stories can support and coexist each other rather than threatening each other. Bettan and Efa literally promise to be best friends forever, which felt good to read.

I loved all the care and thought Curtis put into the details of her worldbuilding. For example, the selkie civilization on human land is more suited to their biology than human villages would be — the houses are very simple, shops are run out of the houses instead of being in separate buildings, etc. In the nearby human village, selkies are accepted as real–they’re othered and exoticized a little, but they’re a familiar presence. In contrast, sirens (called “fishwives” by the humans) are treated as more fantastical. As Efa says:

“I didn’t know fishwives were real,” she said, barely able to form the words over her blush. People told stories about them, but then, people told stories about kings, too. She’d never known anyone who met one.

As for Ninka the Siren/Fishwife herself, here she is in one quote: “Whatever I want. I go exploring, and fish, and bother sailors and seduce young women on the seashore.” Sounds like a nice life! I’d ask where I can sign up, except violins are easily waterlogged.

Ninka is described as “so beautiful Efa didn’t know how she’d ever thought she’d want boys.” Speaking of which, I loved the worldbuilding’s approach to queerness. For example, here’s a conversation between Efa and a male siren:

“I was with a human once. It didn’t end well.”

“With,” she repeated.

“A blacksmith,” he said.

Efa scrunched up her nose. “That’s as human as you can get without being a miner,” she said. And then frowned. “Are all sirens – do men always fall in love with other men?”

“A lot of us do,” he said, “but she was a woman.”

I like the creative decision to have selkie culture and siren culture show different approaches to male-male and female-female love—Efa’s community never presented it as an option, but it’s totally commonplace in Ninka’s. I don’t think I’ve run into this before, this contrast between two different fantasy creature communities. Usually it’s all “how does this group differ from humans.

The entire book draws heavily on symbolism that can easily parallel real-world sexual assault, domestic violence, or bisexual women coerced into permanent relationships with allo cis hetero men rather than pursuing happiness with any gender wherever life leads them (which, yes, may happen to be a man like that but that’s different from ending up with one through social pressure.)

The most poignant and pithy representation of these connections is when Bettan asks Efa, “What if he turned me human?” What if he changed me irrevocably? What if I’ve lost something that made me fundamentally me? This works for all of these real-world parallels. Another quote: “You think people can’t do those kinds of things to you, but obviously they can.” And then, when Efa says, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re free now.” I’m probably making this sound heavy-handed, but it’s really not. It’s exquisite.

After all–

“But no one will take this seriously. It happens all the time.”

“I don’t see why we don’t stop it,” she said. . . . There were selkies who came home ten years, twenty years later, their sealskin won back, and never spoke of what had happened while it was kept from them. There were mothers so determined not to be trapped that they abandoned their sons and daughters. Efa knew people, a dozen of them at least, who stayed away from their human forms forever out of fear that their sealskin might be taken again. She couldn’t imagine losing one world to save the other, but they did it, and trembled at the thought of shedding their sealskins.

There may be some awkward and unintentional racial coding going on in the selkies having slightly darker skin than the human characters–between that and the “lol you’re sexy but exotic and othered” treatment from the human fishermen, plus all the themes of escaping coercion, one could see symbolism for women of color. However, as a fairly light-skinned white Jew, I’m still darker than the white Irish people in my life, so the selkies could still be white if thinking of them any other way gets awkward. A WoC will be better able to speak to this than I can.

Speaking of marginalization, though, the book had a neat moment where Efa forgets about the existence of Deaf people and Ninka (the siren) corrects her. Again, here for a siren “calling in” a selkie as if they were both, like, activist friends of mine or something.

I’m not sure if I was reading an earlier draft because I was given a review copy as a Lesbrary reviewer, but halfway through the book random hyphens started appearing in words that weren’t at the end of lines on the mobile version. It happened at least three or four times and I just wanted to give a heads up that other than this, the book was impeccably edited and didn’t have any other artifacts of Indie Life. Also, I’m not a fan of the cover and feel that it gives the wrong impression of the contents; it looks too modern to me and almost looks like a beachy wedding shoot. Would love to see it with the kind of sweeping fantasy art the story cries out for.

The ending is a little bit unresolved as far as relationships go – there’s an unambiguous f/f ending for Efa that seems like it could lead to future complications (but I’m pretty sure there’s a sequel in the works) plus a m/f resolution for other characters that seemed like a giant maybe. But life itself is unresolved and in continual flow, so I don’t have a problem with this. The plot and adventure part of the story are definitely resolved and complete, and overall this was a riveting read that I’m awarding five stars for quality and being thoroughly absorbing.

Trigger warning for on-the-page controlling husband behavior and “underwater fantasy violence”, as the MPAA might phrase it. These are not Lisa Frank mermaids.

Also, this book will make you thoroughly hungry for fish (if you eat fish.)