This week on Down the Stacks, we have an interesting modern-day folktale. In Carousel Tides by Sharon Lee, a coastal Maine tourist town hides a world of faeries, magic, and otherworldly politics. The result is good, but the execution is a bit… unusual for my tastes. Read on as I try to explain.
Kate Archer is a young woman on the run. Some time before the start of the book, she left Archers Beach, Maine and her only family - grandmother Bonny Pepperidge - for what she thought would be a short life of self-exile. The ties of blood and duty prove stronger than self-pity when she receives a strange letter from her grandmother asking Kate to return to Archers Beach and take charge of the carousel that has been in the Pepperidge family since “right around the dawn of civilization, Maine time.” Kate returns to Archers Beach with two goals in mind: keep the carousel from going into foreclosure and find out where her Gran disappeared to so she can be brought back and Kate can go back to her suicidal exile.
Keeping the carousel in the family isn’t about any kind of pride or tradition for Kate; the innocent-looking fun park attraction doubles as a prison for half a dozen criminals of Faerie origin, each one bound and sealed to one of the animals on the carousel. The bindings and seals need to be refreshed on a regular basis, and with Granny Bonny missing in action Kate is the only person she knows capable of repairing the bindings. Everyone else in Archers Beach with magical inclinations either is too weak to do the job or has responsibilities of their own.
Matters are complicated by the presence of Joe Nemeier, an out-of-town businessman who’s smuggling something through Archers Beach and employing magic to protect his people from discovery and the interference of local spirits, who Kate manages to tick off by standing up for her family’s property rights to a side of hill just outside town. The one providing Mr. Nemeier with that magic is someone Kate hoped never to see again.
Kate isn’t without allies. First and most prominent is Borgan, a local fisherman who takes an immediate shine to Kate, has a deep connection to the Archers Beach locality as well, and is bound and determined to help Kate through her personal issues whether she likes it or not. Another, far less present but frequently on Kate’s mind, is Mr. Ignatius: a friend of Gran, roller coaster owner, explicitly magical, and impossible to track down 90% of the time.
The hidden world that Kate is a part of is an interesting take on the Faerie realms. It actually consists of six distinct worlds, including Earth a.k.a. The Changing Land. The only other Land we get a name for is the Land of Flowers, a realm of perpetual summer and chock-full of overcharged mages. Magic takes several forms in the worlds; at least three different types are evident in Carousel Tides. First is the natural magic of the trenvay, the minor Faerie-like creatures tied to specific parts of the land or sea - creatures like dryads and selkies. Second is Words: powerful but unrestrained spells that seem to spontaneously generate inside Kate when she gets annoyed enough or faces a big enough problem. Last is jikinap, which is essentially mana that magically-inclined folk can gather inside themselves and then spend to cast more controllable and longer-lasting spells than a Word could ever produce. Lots of jikinap can make a mage far stronger than any trenvay, but the power gets addicting and difficult to keep in check at high concentrations.
Carousel Tides is a great story with a strong hook that will keep you turning pages all the way through. A big part of that hook is that it’s told from Kate’s perspective, and although she does explain important concepts like trenvay and jikinap when they first come up in the narration, she’s so familiar with the hidden world of magic and Faerie that she takes for granted a lot of things in both her personal backstory and the magical history of Archers Beach, not explaining what’s the big deal with certain key landmarks or why she’s initially hesitant to reconnect with the land and is “phasing out” a lot until some other character asks for the relevant story. Borgan fills that question-asking role for the most part, which is why I like him so much. Early on, Kate is explicitly suicidal, which makes for a disturbing read, but because she takes finding her Gran and taking care of the carousel so seriously, Borgan has an opening to get into her life and help her out of her darkness.
As obsessed with worldbuilding and history as I am, I found it frustrating not to have Kate’s full nature and history laid out for me within the first few chapters, but Sharon Lee handles the gradual reveal with such finesse that I trusted her to give me all the pieces by the end. I wasn’t disappointed.
There’s at least one sequel to Carousel Tides out there. I might pick it up if I can find the time. The story of Carousel Tides itself is complete enough to stand on its own, and I highly recommend it.