Rachel Swirsky Reviews The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

The Fisher of Bones, Sarah Gailey (Fireside Fiction 9780998778327, $14.99, 130pp, tp) Oc­tober 2017. Cover by Miranda Meeks.

Since August, Fireside Fiction has been se­rializing Sarah Gailey’s novella The Fish­er of Bones online. Now readers can also get the complete 12 parts in book form.

The story begins with the death of a prophet. On his deathbed, he names his daughter to serve as prophet after him. Now tasked with oversee­ing their community, Fisher must direct their journey through harsh terrain to a land of plenty promised to them by the Gods. She must navi­gate rebellion, famine, theft, and illness, with the help of predictions written on bone tablets which only she can read.

The story is well suited to serialization. Its appealing, easy-to-engage voice eases the stop-and-start interruptions. Strong (but not hectic) pacing sweeps the reader quickly between sec­tions, where they are rewarded with strange twists and strange images that urge them fur­ther. My favorite strange image: the “cathedral ribcage” of a fossilized dinosaur, stranded and hulking in the desert heat.

I did have two significant reservations about the text. First, I expect there’s a layer of subtext to this story I missed. Lacking detailed Bibli­cal knowledge, I was unsure what to make of the parallels between the novella and Exodus. I found myself caught up in superficial things – the tablets, heat and deserts, a prophet who dies before reaching the promised land, and so on. It felt more disconcerting than compelling. I’ll be interested to see what other readers got out of it.

Also, the story’s ending reads very oddly to me. It struck me as similar to the endings of the individual series sections, to the point where I started searching for information about whether this was only the first of more than one serialized novellas that were, themselves, in series. At this point, it is not.

I found the ending unsatisfying because it ne­gated everything I thought I’d known. That can be an interesting technique, but it risks being alienating. In most cases, when a story eschews one type of resolution (the plot), it has to com­pensate by providing resolution in another area to anchor the reader as they exit the story. I didn’t feel a sufficient sense of that in this piece, which left me dissatisfied and reaching for something more substantial.

This interests me because I’m not sure I’d have had the same reaction if The Fisher of Bones had been published in another format. I think it’s difficult to pull off an ending like this in a serial; the reader has been denied resolu­tions for so long, piece by piece, that another denial feels like continuance, not ending.

Oddly, I think I’d also have been more satis­fied by the ending if the novella had appeared in a magazine, anthology, or collection, where I would be seeing it as part of a whole. The book format raises my expectations for a sense of completeness.

On the other hand, the current ending leaves plenty of room for Gailey to serialize the serial.

Despite a few quibbles, I found this an enter­taining and well-written read. Gailey’s world is compelling, unsettling, and unpredictable. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in it.


This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.

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