“You’re here to put an end to us, and a Selkie without a skin is no concern of Faerie’s.”

Ahoy, Bookwyrms! 

I’ve decided to start the new decade with a four-part series looking back at one of my favorite literary/folkloric subjects of all time:

SELKIES!!!  

The first three posts will be reviews — two new reads and a nostalgic favorite, all of which focus on the ultimate question:  What is a true selkie?  Is it the skin?  Or is it something else?  Where does a skinless selkie fit in Faerie?  What relationship can a skinless selkie have with the sea?

Finally, I will reflect on (mostly) Juv/YA selkie lore as a whole, or at least the sub-set of it that I’ve read in the past 23 years.  What is the balance of human and beast in a selkie?  Are they primarily humans who sometimes change into seals, or vice versa?  What do they actually need in order to transform?  What (if anything) can a non-selkie do with a stolen skin?  Where do selkies fit in among the rest of Faerie?  When do you capitalize “Selkie” and when do you leave it lower-case?

Open currents and sweet tides, my fellow seafarers!  Today’s post covers October Daye #13: The Unkindest Tide, by Seanan McGuire.

Anchors aweigh!

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The cover of "The Unkindest Tide," by Seanan McGuire. A dark-haired woman, wearing a leather jacket, stands at a ship's railing, looking out at the sea.

Seanan McGuire.  The Unkindest Tide.  New York: DAW Books, 2019.

Rating:  4.88 out of 5 green eyes, clear as driftglass, waiting to look out on the world once more.

Recommended if you like:  Feeling fist-pumpy and frustrated at the same time. Those moments when a character points out exactly what you’ve been shouting at these books for years, only in more eloquent terms.  Ambiguous endings.

Recommended reading playlist:

  • “Peacock Flounder,” by Reef Project
  • “Aš esu tiktai jei tu esi” (I am only if you are), by Jurga
  • “Electrical Storm,” by U2
  • “Mississippi,” by Paula Cole
  • “The Deep,” by Garry McDonald, et al. (from the Ocean Girl soundtrack)

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Like the previous Toby review, this one is going to be split into two pages:  Page 1 is Safe Waters (at least, if you’ve read all the previous Toby books), while page 2 (and, possibly, the Comments section) is SPOILER Territory.

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These are mer-stories, my sea-scaled bookwyrms, and that means…the long-awaited return of the Tide Metaphor!  I haven’t used it since my first Toby review, back in 2012.  I first used it to describe my experience reading Undine, by Penni Russon, a story that alternately flowed toward me, calling and compelling me forward…

A scene from Disney's Moana, in which Moana guides her people on a new voyage across the ocean.

…and then ebbed away from me, losing me with unclear (or nonexistent) explanations or eyeroll-worthy characterizations or confusing plot points.

But anyhoo, back to The Unkindest Tide!

The non-spoilery story, in a seashell

The Luidaeg shows up on Toby’s doorstep one March evening and announces that It’s Time.  The Selkie race has lived long enough, using the skins of her slain seal children — the Roane — to live on the edges of Faerie.  Selkies shift between human and magic in a way that never sat comfortably with the rest of Faerie, because sealskins can be stolen and re-used by anyone (at least theoretically).  Sealskins can expose Faerie to the human world.  But they were the only way the sea witch could think of to honor her murdered children, at the time.

Now she has a better way.  Toby has the power to shift the balance of magic in a person’s blood.  And that power is strong enough now to fulfill the Luidaeg’s ultimate goal:  to end the Selkie race and bring back the Roane.

The trouble is: there are only so many sealskins to go around.  They have always been passed down from parent to child, and those with multiple children have had to make difficult choices.  What would desperate parents do to ensure that more of their children could become Roane?  What will become of the skinless Selkies left behind?

And what will this mean for the balance of Faerie?  What will it mean for Toby’s own daughter, whose new skin is the only thing keeping her alive?

Also, there’s some merrow political intrigues and Dianda gets arrested and Toby has to go on a brief side quest.

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As my rating shows, The Unkindest Tide mostly flowed, decorating my shore with gifts of:

  • Memorable-enough-to-cosplay characters (I’m totally proud of my coffee mer-ista persona from several posts ago, but my alternate Halloween costume idea was Captain Pete, the no-nonsense merrow master of the Duchy of Ships) and a setting so mer-mazing that Liz Lemon’s voice played on loop in my head, whispering:  I want to go to there.
    .
    A GIF of Tina Fey, in 30 Rock, saying "I want to go to there."
  • Deep commentary and enchanting descriptions and insightful dialogue that made me shout “Amen!” (particularly re: how much the present-day Selkies should have to pay for their ancestors’ crime — and, more specifically, how much Liz Ryan should be blamed for her individual choice to take a sealskin);
    .
  • Wonderful world-building about the nature and purpose of the Roane, and the creation of the Selkies, and the nature of sealskins (the only problem is when the world-building turns into ret-conning, but that’s a point for page 2).
    .
  • A skillful use of the prophecy trope that balances “This Was All Destined” with “The Future is Malleable and Choices can Change Things.”

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But there were a few moments when the Narrative Ocean lost me, when the story left me stranded on shore, watching some confusing plot point or incomplete explanation or illogical ret-con or sort-of(?) anti-climax(?) sail off without me.

Another scene from Disney's Moana, in which she wakes up, covered in sand, with disheveled hair, on Maui's island.

Still, this was one of those books I liked so much I bought it in digital AND tree-book form (hardcover, even!).  It raises questions — some intriguing and some annoying — and that’s much of the fun of the Toby books.  It has all those lovely Toby one-liners (not to be confused with the groan-worthy Toby one-liners) about folk music and ghosts, and then there’s this really lovely Cassandra line that sums up the whole book and makes me feel more optimistic about Current Events and personal situations:

“Nothing can be broken forever and stay stable.”  (pg. 263)

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So! For those of you who haven’t read The Unkindest Tide and don’t want to enter SPOILER Territory, that was the gist of my review.  If you don’t mind knowing more, or if you’ve already read the book, sail on to page 2.

11 comments

  1. ISo, I think I need to read the end again, because the solution didn’t make a whooooole lot of sense to me. I’ve been sitting on it for a few days, and am still kind of bothered by it. Mostly because it didn’t feel like we had all of the information necessary to get there, I think because of the weird retcon you mentioned. Idk. It just didn’t sit right.

    However, the Luidaeg laughing and having a moment of joy was everything. I was disappointed that she was literally sent out to sea for a good portion of the book, cos she’s my favourite and I wanted her there more.

    Captain Pete is amazing and I love her (and in the movie playing in my head as I read, she was played by Gina Torres). I’m hoping the fact that Luidaeg got the banhammer from her duchy for 7 years doesn’t mean we won’t see her again until Book 20.

    • Oooh, Gina Torres would make an awesome Pete/Amphitrite! In my movie version, the Luidaeg is played alternatively by Pauley Perrette and Cote de Pablo, depending on her mood.

      And yes, I felt there was something rushed about the ending. Like, Torin was a bit too easily defeated. By the end, it seemed like he just came to make a strongly-worded complaint after pretending to threaten Peter and Gillian, for emphasis. He never seemed truly dangerous.

      I did like the idea of increasing the sealskins in a non murdery way, and I loved this one line about the children looking at their new skins like they were a lifetime’s worth of Christmas presents. It was almost as beautiful as the Luidaeg’s laughter.

      What I’m *really* wondering, now that I think of it, is how exactly the Luidaeg expects Toby to shift hundreds of Selkies into Roane in a single day without permanently burning out her magic. Like, is she really going to do it one by one?!?

      Finally, I’m going to have to use “banhammer” more often 😄

  2. See, this is also why I need to re-read the end, because I assumed Toby would have to change them one at a time and thought “JFC, HOW LONG IS THAT GOING TO TAKE?!” But then it seemed like she changed more than just Gilly at once?

    • Yeah, now that I read it again, it sounds like changing Gilly was enough to change everyone. I mean, if Toby can survive a stab to the spine, I guess nothing’s really out of her league? Not sure how I feel about her becoming more and more omnipotent as the series progresses. Like, what are the stakes anymore, if she’s never in any real danger?

      • She’s definitely too OP now, and I have no idea where we even go from here. It’s not that I want her to die, but if she can LOSE A PIECE OF HER SPINE AND BE ON HER FEET THE SAME DAY, what are we even doing anymore? Maybe when Luidaeg drains her, she’ll lose some of her abilities or not be a godsdamned superhero for five minutes?

        • Right?? I mean, I guess losing a bit of spine isn’t as bad as breaking LITERALLY EVERY BONE IN HER BODY a few books ago. At least she took a day or two to wake up from that one. I have a feeling we’re going to need some ret-conning about the nature of the Dochas Sidhe and their (lack of) limits in one of the future books.

  3. My favorite line from all of this was, “The non-spoilery story, in a seashell.” Can’t wait to read part 2! I may even take a look at the second page to this post…

1/100th of an Altairian dollar for your thoughts?

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