A sea-based fantasy world that will drown you in its brilliance and leave you gasping for more
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One of the great things about fantasy novels is their ability to create a world that, in its own way, starts to feel just as real as your own, and one you want to spend time in to explore, so much so that when you are ripped from them by the inevitability of the final page you experience a form of emotional turmoil as you realise that this world and these characters are not, in fact, real and that your time with them has come to an end. This is exactly how I felt when I finished The Skin by J E Hannaford, a debut indie fantasy so beautifully written and imaginatively conceived that for hours after finishing it I mourned its loss keenly, like a five-year-old discovering that hamsters don’t live for very long.
The first reason for my slightly overdramatic reaction is the worldbuilding. Here we have a future Earth, in this book mainly Europe and North Africa, that has seen sea levels dramatically rise due to climate change and seen modern civilisation wiped out, leaving a new age of old-style kingdoms mixed with remnants of advanced tech. In this sense it is similar to Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, but the key twist is that where that was land-based, here we have a society that has formed around maritime culture, based around the coasts. Set against this human world is the world of the Old Ones, sea creatures and monsters of legend. Many humans doubt their existence, but they have survived this ecological calamity too, and more importantly it is their magic that helps to sustain this fragile world.
Into this setting, Hannaford builds on an astonishingly realistic and imaginative mix of marine biology and maritime folklore. Sirens, selkies, wind spirits and other creatures of existing legend are incorporated in brilliantly vivid and original ways alongside existing animals; so competently was this done that I was completely unsurprised to discover that the author is a biology teacher. Her take on Sirens in particular is revelatory, a real clever twist on the tale and her version of Selkies – a race of seal creatures who can shed their seal skin on land and become human – is brilliantly imaginative, and kind of makes me want to shoehorn them into my own novels in a desperate attempt to jump onto a mythical creature bandwagon that Hannaford has added twin jet engines to with this novel.
Speaking of selkies, our main narrator and the main focus of the plot revolves around a selkie (who I will not name for reasons that will [eventually] become clear when you read) who loses her skin at the beginning of the novel. On her quest to recover it from the ruthless humans who stole it, she meets a group of people – some human, some very much not – who run secret operations to rescue the Old Ones who have been captured by humans, and in their own way attempt to restore the old, and dying, magical ecosystem.
The adventures that ensue are tense, marvellously scripted and enjoyably realised, involving a heist, a dangerous artic adventure, and a daring rescue among others. Hannaford has created a sort of non-human magical Mission Impossible team, but with a selkie instead of Tom Cruise. It is great fun; but Hannaford also knows when to shock; one death in particular might be the most brutal and unexpected I’ve read all year and it will hit you hard.
But as good as the pace and the plot are, the real joy of this novel is the characters, and the character voice. As our main protagonist is a selkie, we are privy to her thoughts and of living a concealed human existence (Selkies use magic to conceal their appearance, a concept considered in admirable detail by Hannaford) and honestly I can’t remember the last time I was so convinced and impressed by a first person non-human fantasy character’s narrative. The selkie is so compelling precisely because it is recognisably human yet also distinctly not in a thousand small touches; not only does her distain and confusion over human practices and characteristics come across but the distinctive nature of selkies compared to humans are related in small but brilliant flourishes, such as when two selkies sort of want to hug but don’t because, as she notes, selkies don’t use their hands most of their time as they’re in seal skin so find personal contact awkward. The conversations with her mentor and fellow concealed selkie are revelatory in this aspect; normal and alien at the same time.
For fans of compelling characterisation there is also much joy to be found in the team the selkie joins. A classic trope of fantasy is found family, and boy do I have good news for you found family fans out there (you know who you are); this group is written with a tenderness, a joy and a realism to the dialogue that made me want to spend so much more time with them then the mere confines of a book allowed. Whether writing humans, sea witches, selkies or sirens, Hannford has a gift with characterisation; that much is clear.
Finally, how can I leave out the prose? Beautiful without being flowery, descriptive yet often beguilingly simple, it’s a prose style I fell in love with, and you will too. This book was an absolute joy, and I am already counting down the seconds till I read the second part. Hannaford has created a world and characters I could submerge myself in for dozens of novels, pun 100% intended, and I hope this is the start of a lengthy series, or at least the emergence of a stunning new fantasy voice.