Published September 2014 in Lightspeed (issue 52)
(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)
This is the first thing I’ve read from Sarah Pinsker, and I love it. In most ways, this story is really traditional. The young character, bereaved of a parent, lured back into the life his or her parent lived. That same young character doesn’t know how to fit in and feels like an outcast. Budding love (or maybe just budding like). A snarky, aggressively competent woman who runs a tavern/inn but has a real heart of gold. All of that stuff isn’t surprising, and sounds almost cliche when put like that. But Sarah Pinsker uses those familiar elements as touchstones around which to weave her wonderful story.
I love that Alex is presented as an intersex character who, despite encountering the societal ugliness that occurs around individuals who aren’t cisgendered, finds his own peace and confidence in rejecting the sirens. One of the ways fantasy authors sometimes run into problems is by eliding non-normative identities with the fantastical in a way that exoticizes the character without actual exploring, supporting, or otherwise attempting to understand him or her as an individual. Alex suffers from no such problematic treatment, and it made the story a true joy to read.
I was curious about the inclusion or exclusion of some characters or elements of the story. I’m still noodling over the inclusion of the love story and the side bit about the men trying to attack the sirens. I don’t want to be crotchety or nit-picky about this, because I loved the story and because who the fuck am I, and I still don’t even know if these things did or didn’t work for me, but I’m wondering about the goals and effects of those scenes. The first one, the love story, suggests the taste of those stolen romantic moments from being a teenager, the seconds and minutes where you get out of yourself long enough to see someone else sitting beside you, radiant and electric. In that way, it worked for me, and I was left with just the hint of the start of the narrative, just the thought of lift off for Alex and Ginny. But I wanted more, and maybe that’s the point.
The second, though, the “Let’s be drunk and violent and try to kill some fantastical beasts with weapons that require our concentration and steady handedness” scene felt primarily like a response to a question: Smythe and Alex are already going to be heading out, the village-wide restlessness of the sailors who want to GTFO is enough to justify their going without a major prompting, and so the attack on the sirens seems like the answer to the question of, “Why doesn’t somebody just attack them?” Which is totally logical, but it read as sort of jarring to me, especially so late into the story and after I’d already totally bought in. On the other hand, though, it did foreshadow the thing about the sirens’ song, which was such a beautiful idea later on when it paid off.
I don’t really have much to say about it, but I loved Alex’s relationship with the twins. They were cute and endearing and funny, and Alex’s give and take with them, the way he is a parent to them even as they provide him with family and community and belonging, is totally touching.
On a purely technical note, Sarah Pinsker (I can’t decide between calling her Sarah, as though we’re on a first name basis, or Pinsker, which makes this sound like a damn academic paper–hence my wobbly use of her whole name each time.) does something here that I have been anxious to try in my own fiction: she effortlessly and fearlessly blends an element from the history/literary world (Homer’s notes about and suggestions on sirens) within her fantasy world, which has its own worldbuilding elements to it. It sounds so simple, and she’s certainly not the only one to ever have done it, but there’s something I find really compelling about an author who is willing to draw on the elements she wants to draw on in the service of her story regardless of whether they seem immiscible.
And that idea, being caught somewhere between two things, whether it’s fantasy and reality or the sides of the gender binary, is at the heart of this story, which itself has so much heart. Alex is proud of his song, of the music he sings when its just him and the horses, and I love that he doesn’t feel “caught” or “trapped” between the essentialist categories surrounding him. He exists in a liminal space, and he’s found freedom and joy there. The song of the sirens is one of avoidance for Alex: avoidance of the world he’s lived in, certainly, but also avoidance of himself, of the person he is proud to be. With the sirens, the world is a small thing, the village and the bay and the water reduced to a simple shape, the people absent. Alex’s refusal to live in that place makes his story all the more triumphant.
I can’t wait to read more of her stuff!
Sarah Pinsker can be found online at: http://www.sarahpinsker.com/
(She’s apparently a musician, too! Sarah, if you’re reading this and ever find yourself in Minnesota, we need to jam. I’ll bring my drum set, you bring your guitar and the musical ability.)