The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Rating 9.4/10
A dark, brooding and windswept tale of longing and despair.

There are few sureties of quality in the literary world but when a review copy comes through bearing the names David Fickling Books and Margo Lanagan then I will happily admit that this is as close as it comes.

David Fickling Books have a mission, and that is to choose the very best stories they can find for people to read. And this is exactly what they do. Over the last 5 years quality book after quality book has arrived: Eon by Alison Goodman, The Deserter by Peadar Ó Guilín, The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt, X-isle by Steve Augarde and Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman to name but a few. All very different books that have something very much in common - they are all just a little bit special.

And then we have Margo Lanagan, the Australian author who first teamed up with DFB in 2009 to publish the Fantasy Award winning Tender Morsels, a re-imagining of the classic Grimm tale of Snow White and Rose-Red which was a big, dark, atmospheric tale about the fact that hell and heaven are other people. It was also a book that pushed back the boundaries of what is now considered literature "suitable" for young adults.

The two have joined forced again on Sea Hearts… Well, the review copy that arrived was thus entitled but it looks like the book will be published as The Brides of Rollrock Island.

Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic - the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells - and brings forth girls from the sea - girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness - the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.

But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.

Lanagan's story is inspired by the selkie, a mythological creature found in both Nordic and Celtic folklore. Selkies are able to become human by taking off their seal skins, and can return to seal form by putting it back on. And so we find ourselves on familiar ground with the author re-imagining and re-inventing tales of old, something that she did with aplomb on Tender Morsels and once again manages here.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is a dark, brooding and windswept tale of longing and despair in which Lanagan' s writing is as beautiful is ever. Indeed, the best compliment I can give it is that had I have stumbled upon it and knew nothing of its publication date I would have guessed it to have been decades if not centuries old, such is its timeless nature. It reads like a classic. It is a wonderful book and it is unlikely that many better will be published in the genre this year. Existing fans of Lanagan should rejoice and I strongly suggest that those who have not already read her work, do so.

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