Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear

I was doing a google search for an image of the cover of this book, and when I mistyped "thy" as "they," google helpfully decided to search "sean the mistress" instead. Thanks, Google! 

I'm trying to think how to describe what Elizabeth Bear has accomplished in this book, because it's really something quite extraordinary. I find when I read a lot of characters who are torturing themselves for some reason or another, I get frustrated. The author isn't doing enough to make it convincing why - it's like getting that close to that much pain is insanely difficult, which of course it is. However, keeping up a remove pushes those characters further away from the reader. It keeps their pain opaque and distant.

That is not what happens here. Bear takes the readers right inside Cathoair's pain, and stays there. She shows us friends feeling helpless, why he makes the decisions he does, the horrifying pact and its effects on his body and emotions. I can't imagine how it was to write. It's painful to read, yet in staying with that pain, I understand it better than I have before.

I have not read the second book in the series, but this one takes up after Cathoair's lover, Muire, has gone into the sea, become one with the sea, a goddess, and helped rejuvenate a dying world. Things are growing. People are spreading out. The sea leaves Cathoair's child on the beach for him to raise, and the world slowly starts to knit.

There are a number of stories in this book, but Cathoair's arc, as he hurts even as the world heals. It was bought at the cost of the woman he loved, and he has never forgiven her for being able to leave him, even if he understands.

He has been broken down in so many ways, over so long a history. It's brutal, at times, but it's never distant. There is never the comfort of remove. When someone offers him a deal to save someone else he loved and understand why he might take it.

The world that frames this pain is still striking - a mix of technology and magic, influenced by Norse mythology, with magic swords and animal/people hybrids (moreaus). There are angels who wield the swords, who guard the land and the people, but not in a light or pretty way. There are so many people who love Cathoair, including his son, and want to help him heal, but cannot touch the wounds left so deeply.

The other characters are incredibly well drawn as well, and there is so much mutual hurt and pain, and Bear conveys the complexity between horrific acts and broken people and savage caring so very well. These are moments when you think healing cannot possibly happen, and maybe those are the only moments when it can.


  1. This is the perfect series for you - I think the trilogy stands up no matter what order you read it in. :)

    1. I have really liked the two I've read! Someday, I'll read the other.

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