“If this were a fairy story,” he said, “then the stag would offer to let himself be killed for his sinews, and when you took him up on the offer, he would emerge from the skin a beautiful, thankful prince. I never really understood that kind of story—if you know a self-sacrifice will save you, why not do it earlier?—but it would be a lot more pleasant than this.”
S.M. Wheeler’s wonderful debut Sea Change plays with all the tropes of a fairy tale—it is something between a story told by the Brothers Grimm and an extended version of Voltaire’s Candide, sans biting satire. The main character Lilly and her Kraken companion Octavius are posited as star crossed lovers—no one wants them together despite the fact that their friendship threatens so little, at least on the surface. But the story reveals people’s hidden and not so hidden economic agendas when Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and it is up to Lilly to rescue him.
[spoilers after the jump]
Lilly soon discovers that even magic is built on a system of exchange—everything has a price, whether it is her skin, her reproductive ability, her ability to steal, or simply just the warmth of her body. Despite the dark tone, the novel never veers towards nihilistic skepticism as I found myself empathizing with many of the characters who had lost something in their world, whether it be their community, humanity, beauty, youth or friendship.
The novel ventures into more intriguing territory as Lilly loses her sexuality and gender—the price she must pay the troll in order to find out where Octavius is being held. Now “marked, bald, and neutered,” Lilly is transformed into “Lyle” for the rest of her/his journey. While the loss of her old self is at first devastating, Lilly uses her new body to observe and criticize many of the culturally constructed codes of gender and sexual orientation. By the time she is reacquainted with Octavius, she has had to sell herself to thieves and witches, kill majestic creatures and steal as many things as people have demanded.
Yet the greatest gift she gives to free her kraken is a lovely twist to the Beauty and the Beast tale, and only solidifies how deeply their friendship goes. It is a story that examines just how much true sacrifice unconditional love demands and how one might emerge all the stronger for it.
By Nancy Hightower