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Book Review: Between Boat and Shore by Rhiannon Grant

Saturday, January 18, 2020 - 09:00
Cover: Between Boat and Shore

I had no idea what to expect going into this book, and if I’d had expectations they would have been wrong. Based on the cover copy, what you have is a Neolithic murder mystery with intimations of queer romance. But Between Boat and Shore is neither a murder mystery nor a romance in terms of genre. The story opens with both a violent death and the arrival of two traveling strangers in the small community of Otter Village, motifs that would ordinarily suggest a classic whodunnit plot. But this story is much more of a slice-of-life anthropological tale (a la Clan of the Cave Bear but a lot queerer) that follows the community through a year’s cycle of everyday life, exploring a possible past that blends solid archaeological research with imagined cultural details.

Grant’s world-building envisions a diversity of micro-cultures, each interacting and borrowing from each other, or coming into conflict because of local differences. The motif of the “visiting strangers” provides a context for exploring both the setting of the story and the contrast of that diversity without falling into excessive authorial explanation. The larger cultural picture is one in which non-binary gender is an unremarked option and same-sex romance is an accepted, if not always encouraged, alternative.

The writing is solidly competent and avoids the pitfalls of excess info-dumping or making the dialogue stilted and artificial in an attempt to avoid anachronism. It’s hard for me to guess how the story would come across to a reader with less background in the history and material culture of the era. One of the most interesting world-building choices both worked and didn’t entirely work for me. Within the envisioned social micro-cultures, the one Grant developed for Otter Village is expressly based on modern worship and consensus-building practices of the Society of Friends (Quakers), as discussed in the author’s afterword. As a thought experiment in how such practices could work as a system of small-community government in a prehistoric culture, I thought it felt very natural. But as someone who was raised within Quaker culture, my problem was that it was too recognizable and jostled me out of the story a bit until I was able to set my reaction aside. I have no idea whether this aspect would be recognizable to anyone not closely familiar with Quaker culture, but for me it would have worked better with a few more of the serial numbers filed off.

Overall, this was a fascinating, fairly quick read with a satisfying and feel-good conclusion. In terms of genre, it’s very hard to classify and requires discarding genre expectations for the best reader experience.

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