SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
Flowers for the Sea. Zin E. Rocklyn. Tordotcom, October 2021.
Tordotcom is working wonders on providing readers with a wide variety of imaginative narratives. There’s no well-worn groove, no specialty, no concentration—instead, their mission statement seems to be making sure that no two titles, no two stories, are the same. It seems to me that if one took a typical year’s production of Tordotcom works, by the end of December one would have a beautiful cross-section of the heights to which the SF&F genres may achieve.
A very different story than the space opera Light Chaser (see last column) is brought to us by Zin E. Rocklyn. Her debut fantasy novella Flowers for the Sea is a sharply focused and intense story. From the vastness of deep space, we move to the water, where a beleaguered ark carries the last survivors of a massive inundation. Supplies are scarce, nerves frayed, fanged sea monsters swirl around the massive vessel, and hope for deliverance is quickly fading:
Seventeen hundred forty-three days at sea. Recollections of a life without the current in our legs is the stuff of fables and faery tales. We trade stories. The babes listen in wonder, having taken their first steps on this cursed boat, their disbelief palpable. Teens brood in mildewed corners, hissing at daylight and orders to earn their keep. The girls bleed late and we are eternally thankful to the godless depths below. We rut in anger and loneliness. And every once in a while, an affliction is cast upon we birthingfolk.
This dire situation is thus summed up in short and brutal order by the book’s narrator, Iraxi. Rocklyn—as Iraxi—writes simply, directly, and with devastating emotional punch, an apt reflection of her own situation. Iraxi is a pregnant woman aboard a vessel where forty women have failed—fatally—to carry their babies to term, a state of affairs that only heightens shipboard anxieties as the refugees face the end of their entire culture and people. As Iraxi notes, “[h]ope has no place on this vessel of death and disease, aimless and everlasting in its path.” However, she has been placed in a particularly and uniquely harrowing situation among her fellows. As a potential mother, she is of vital importance to the future. At the same time, she is suspected and hated. Back before the flood, her fisherman family was viewed with intense jealousy because of their independence and their financially successful bonding with the sea—jealousy that became violent suspicion after several poor fishing seasons and increasingly hostile weather, and murderous when locals killed much of Iraxi’s family— as well as anger that Iraxi refused betrothal to the local Prince.
Thus, Iraxi is now trapped on a boat with people who hate and envy her, and moreover, the baby she carries within her may not be entirely of human origin. “This child has already been born. Into the sky and into the sea, this child is among this world. And it will swallow it whole.” In short, Iraxi bears an unimaginable emotional burden; in lesser or more clumsy hands, this could easily come off as cheap trauma porn, but Rocklyn is a much better writer than that. Iraxi is a fully-realized character, full of realistically raw feeling (captured in equally raw and intense prose), and her final decisions in the novella (which I won’t reveal!) are driven by plausible human motivations—namely, vengeance, and the inability to forget or forgive injustices. This is something I don’t see enough of in stories—people acting out of motives like vengeance without apology or amelioration. It’s quite emotionally satisfying, really, returning blood for blood, justice for injustice. Especially so as we get to know Iraxi better in the course of the story, living alongside her particular pain and struggles.
Flowers for the Sea is not an easy read. As I said above, it’s full of pain (and violence, and emotional turmoil). But all the same, it’s a beautiful read in its sheer visceral power and its exploration of human psychological and physical endurance. If this is a harbinger of the type of long work of which Rocklyn is capable, we should expect many more outstanding works from her in the future.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020; this entry was edited by Summer van Houten and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this title.