Seven Tears is one of two books that I found on a list of alternative supernatural creatures on Tumblr, the point being to spread some awareness of paranormal beings other than vampires, werewolves, angels and faeries that could be featured in YA paranormal romance. The alternative in this case was of especial importance to me, because it was selkies, and my WIP novel of two+ years, Tallulah, just so happens to have selkies in it.
I’ve been worried for a while that somebody might have taken my idea and done it already; it’s a risk of trying something ‘new’, I guess – the danger of copying without realising it. At least with something like vampires or wizards, there’s already been a lot done, so being derivative isn’t quite as noticeable. If there’s just a couple of examples of something being done, though, and they’re rather similar, then ultimately only one of them is going to succeed in the public eye. I suppose I should probably worry about all this once the book is actually written and submitted for publishing – but then again, if I hadn’t been so paranoid about it I never would have read this book.
(All of that is, of course, ignoring wider narrative trends – just because you use swan-maidens instead of Jedi Knights doesn’t make your Hero’s Journey any less of a Hero’s Journey.
And because I am sticking to my ‘no snark’ rule when reviewing books, because I know how hard it is to both give and receive feedback on my own writing, I’m not going to make the joke I was going to make there. Let’s see how I get on.
Honestly I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It’s definitely not my idea, so in that sense I am glad I read it just for comfort. The story itself, particularly how it portrayed the romance angle, I found really unappealing, which is a shame as it’s the main focus of the story, but at the same time this was the reason I felt comforted for reading it.
Selkie stories are laden with problematic depictions of romantic and sexual agency; male selkies go around seducing unhappy housewives, and female selkies are subjected to what amounts to slavery. In the stories I’ve read of both male and female selkies, only the selkie women ever seem to have their seal-skins taken from them, which forces them to stay ‘happily married’ to their human husbands. The stories make a point of noting that selkie wives are faithful and even happy with their husbands, even though they are constantly longing to return to the sea, because of course you’d be happy with being kidnapped and forced into marriage and motherhood as a reward for daring to go sunbathe on the beach, right?
Selkie men on the other hand just seem to come and go as they please, occasionally getting killed in seal-form by their lovers’ husbands (often without said husbands realising what they’ve done). It is this variant of the selkie mythos that Seven Tears founds itself upon.
The story is told from the point of view of Gwen, a 17-year-old girl who has come to some seaside village resort town place thing to help her grandmother run her inn, as she’s injured her leg. When Gwen was 10 years old she wandered down to the sea and saw a naked man walking into the ocean; thinking he was going to drown himself she wept seven tears (I don’t know if that’s an exact number or what), and said naked man told her some cryptic rhyme about how he’d come back in seven years because of that. Well-meaning Thelma, pal of Gwen’s grandmother, found Gwen there and told people that she’d been with a child molester; due to this stigma Gwen has never been back to the seaside town where she grew up until now.
So already we’ve got some issues. First of all: that cryptic rhyme. “Beckon the sea, I’ll come to thee … shed seven tears, perchance seven years.” Although the language is vague as all hell, there’s definitely the implication that this guy is going to come back for her in seven years time. All this because she cried. That wasn’t intentional crying; she wasn’t crying seven tears to try and get this guy to return to her once she’s legal: she’s a ten-year-old crying because some guy looks like he’s trying to drown himself by going swimming in a storm.
Also, this being a selkie story, the ‘coming back’ part is basically guaranteed to be of a romantic/sexual nature. This is something she’s initiated without realising it, and it results in some kind of binding contract that she doesn’t get to agree or disagree to; she’s given no choice in the matter – and again, it’s so vague that it’s hard to tell what it actually means.
And, again: she’s ten.
Fast-forward to seven years later and Gwen is apprehensive about returning to this seaside community where everybody thinks she was molested as a child and, as a result, she feels like they all think she’s crazy for having told them what really happened. Throughout the book we get Grandma pushing her into facing these people when it’s abundantly clear that Gwen feels anxious and uncomfortable even thinking about them, and what’s almost worse is the fact that none of these interactions actually end up going bad. Nobody reminds her of what happened that night, nobody makes her feel like she’s crazy – nobody other than Thelma and Grandma, that is – and as a result, while it’s nice for her that she’s not being belittled by people, it feels too comfortable.
That’s nothing to the secrecy surrounding the whole selkie thing: turns out her parents and her grandmother actually knew exactly what was going on that night, and decided to keep it a secret from her because they didn’t think she’d be able to handle the truth, which was basically that she’s destined to fall in love with said selkie and be his mate forever. Now, granted, I would not be incredibly eager to tell my (hypothetical) ten-year-old daughter that she’s destined to shack up with a grown man in seven years, or anybody for that matter. But if that’s what’s destined to happen, well, forearmed is forewarned and all that. The excuse has some validity to it in that I can well imagine people acting that way, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating, especially when it’s been done so many times before.
And this time we’ve got Grandma’s scrying-pan, in which she sees the future and has no problems dishing out cryptic prophecies to her granddaughter, including when she’s ten years old. Grandma tells her, right before she leaves: “The power which commands the waves, will pull you back. Back to a reunion no mortal can imagine and no female can resist.” Sounds real promising, doesn’t it? And what exactly is the nature of this reunion?
Well, as you might imagine, that doesn’t become clear until Gwen actually meets the selkie again. He’s everything a YA romantic male lead generally is: forceful, persistent, constantly tells her to do things instead of asking, touches/grabs/kisses her without getting consent – and she is everything a YA female protagonist generally is: enamoured with his aggression, excited at the thought of him basically stalking her, unable to stop thinking about him and in no way whatsoever challenging his right to treat her this way, because she finds it to be the most romantic thing in the world.
I’ll give it this: selkies are perhaps the perfect supernatural being to use this formula with. The mythos supports it big-time. The only issue with that is the fact that the selkie mythos is basically the perfect example of rape-culture at work, and the book plays it totally straight, doing nothing to critique or deconstruct the mythos and its ideology of aggressive men and passive women as a romantic ideal whatsoever.
And there’s other stuff in the story, like Zack McCracken, a violent sociopath who hurts animals and … well, actually, he’s not the Third Wheel; there is no love-triangle in this book, and that was actually a missed opportunity with regards to going all-out with the selkie mythology. He’s never presented as anything other than violent and cruel, and while I think there are a couple of mentions of how he’s kinda hot because he’s jacked or whatever, all he does is terrorise Gwen, literally torturing her cat at one point, and thankfully this is never painted as appropriate or as some kind of ‘this is what boys do when they like you’ bullshit. It means he’s incredibly one-dimensional, but it is, in my eyes, the lesser evil.
There are also Shallow Friends, Jill and Mandi, who show up at the start and then right at the end for … some reason. They’re pretty useless to the overall plot, except to show how much Gwen has changed in the seven days since she’s met her selkie beau, which is to make her fall head-over-heels in infatuation with somebody who looks exactly the same as he did when she was ten years old, which is when he told her he’d be coming for her when she got older.
It ends with him returning to the sea, unable to resist, after begging her to take his skin and burn it so that he can never go back. She doesn’t do it because she sees how cruel this would be, and it’s the one part of the book that is kinda interesting, raising some kind of moral quandary about their relationship. But it’s still romanticised, and it’s all about how she has to struggle with how selfish she is for wanting him to stay. And, of course, totally reinforces the stereotype of men ‘not being able to control themselves’ around women.
In case it’s not clear: I don’t like this book. Right at the start, when Gwen was just getting settled in and feeling excited at the prospect of staying alone in her old house, was cool. It gave me the same kind of feeling that I got when I re-read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry is left alone at Diagon Alley to do whatever the hell he likes – it’s the fantasy of independence, and it’s something I’m a complete sucker for.
And in reading this book, I came to realise that that’s exactly what it is: an escapist fantasy, not a story. It lingers on the sexually-charged interactions between Gwen and whatshisface while absolutely nothing of interest happens; it indulges in the eroticism of their relationship without once looking into the ethical implications of it – it’s pure escapism. And while such fantasies are fine to have, this one really didn’t appeal to me. I need a bit of self-awareness in my fantasies, and most importantly I need a return to reality by the end and some kind of critical, insightful investigation of the fantasy. No such luck here.
I guess if you liked Twilight and want to try a quick read with selkies instead of vampires, check it out. I’m definitely not that person. But at least I know that’s one less book I have to worry about having used my idea for a selkie story before I did.