Between Boat And Shore by Rhiannon Grant is a bit hard to classify. It is–most obviously–a historical novel. It has a murder mystery subplot, but it’s not a mystery by genre. It has a romantic subplot, but I wouldn’t classify it as a romance. I’d call it more of a “slice of life” story, but perhaps “anthropological fiction” would be an even better label, though not typically thought of as a genre. (Think Clan Of The Cave Bear, except a lot queerer.)
Set in a village in neolithic Scotland, this story follows the lives of a village over the course of a year through tragedy, change, ordinary everyday struggles to survive and thrive, and providing a hopeful and promising future. Within a meticulously researched and depicted setting, Grant has imagined a vision of a society that embraces same-sex relationships and non-binary genders without being an artificial eutopia.
While the cast of central characters is broad, the narrative works from two women’s viewpoints: Trebbi, who functions as something of a spiritual guide for the people of Otter Village, and Aleuks, a trader who arrives by boat in some distress having lost one of her two companions at sea. Circumstance throws them together over the winter when further travel is impossible and a sweet romance develops, troubled only by the question of what will happen when trading season comes again. They are both well-realized and sympathetic characters, but that holds for the minor characters as well. (Except perhaps in the context of that pesky murder. When you live in a small, isolated village, the question of “whodunnit?” is perilous.)
The Writing Style
I enjoyed Grant’s prose style. It’s solidly competent with a good balance of description and dialogue. She finds a good balance between avoiding anachronistic concepts for the setting without making the characters sound stilted. The plot definitely falls in the “slice of life” category, with no dramatic overall plot arc, just a series of overlapping challenges to face and work through. The delightfulness of this story is in being led through one author’s vision of how people in a very different time and society might have lived.
I really liked Grant’s immersion in the known facts of Neolithic society and how she was able to expand and elaborate on them to create a believable society and an interesting story. In the same way that science fiction or fantasy authors use world-building techniques to weave entirely new settings and cultures, she’s taken the existing research and fleshed it out into story. Using an “outsider” character worked well to explore the details of the characters lives without intrusive explanations.
This isn’t really a con (I think most of the “con” sections of these reviews start that way) and it’s likely to be something that most readers wouldn’t even notice. In developing an idea of how governance and decision-making might have worked within the society of her story, Grant has drawn heavily on worship and consensus-finding practices of the Society of Friends (Quakers)–something she discusses in the afterword. As someone who was raised a Quaker myself, this was a bit intrusively obvious to me while reading the story (before I read the afterword) and I felt it might have worked better if a few more of the serial numbers had been filed off. But it’s likely that readers who don’t have personal experiences with Quaker culture won’t be jarred by it as I was. (To be clear, I thought the concept worked very well as an imagined cultural practice, but the specific implementation couldn’t help but feel “modern” to me because of that connection.)
I think this book will appeal most to readers who enjoy the “other worlds” aspect of fantasy literature or who like reading stories about the everyday detail of unfamiliar cultures. Don’t expect a high-drama plot or exciting action scenes and I think you’ll come to it in the right spirit for an enjoyable read.
Excerpt from Between Boat And Shore by Rhiannon Grant
“Brrr,” Aleuks said, shaking herself all over when she had got into Trebbi’s house and laid down her pack. “Dear me. I think I’m soaked to the skin.” She started to unwrap her cloak and tunic.
“Me too,” Trebbi said, and then she laughed. “It’s funny how things go in cycles – the very first time you came in here we were both wet through and had to change!”
“I was so glad to be in a village!” Aleuks said. She found herself laughing too. “This is a good place to be.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Trebbi said. She went to the back of the house where the beds were, and a supply of dry, folded clothes, and passed Aleuks a new tunic.
Aleuks didn’t put it on right away, though. She followed Trebbi, both of them now naked and drying off in the warmer air of the house. “I like the people here, too,” she said.
“Trebbi smiled. “And I…” her voice dried, and she had to cough. “I like you.”
Aleuks took another step towards her, close enough to feel the body heat, close enough to kiss. Trebbi felt the weight of the days of watching and waiting, the glances they had exchanged or shied away from, the touches which had lingered…
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number 9781916124882
- Publisher Manifold Press
- Rhiannon Grant Online
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