Gabino Iglesias Reviews Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn
Flowers for the Sea, Zin E. Rocklyn (Tordotcom 978-1-25080-403-7, $13.99, 108pp, tp) October 2021.
Zin E. Rocklyn’s Flowers for the Sea is one of those rare narratives that somehow manages to be fantastical, smart, and horrific, all in just over 100 pages. An impressive debut, the latest from a strong, unique new voice in science fiction, this is the kind of novella that’s read in a single sitting not because it can be done, but because the book demands it.
Iraxi and her people are survivors floating around in a vast ocean in the aftermath of the flooding of their kingdom. Running out of food, with no real medical attention or medicine, and a beast that can devour them whole circling their vessel, their lives are a shadow of what they’d once been. Iraxi, who in better times refused a prince more than once, is also pregnant, scared, angry, and ostracized by almost everyone else on the boat. The creature inside her could end them all, especially if it’s not entirely like the rest of them (why some kids are different is a mystery, but it keeps the pages turning), and it could arrive at any moment.
Flowers for the Sea has a deceptively simple plot, but the narrative itself is much more complicated than that. On one level, Iraxi lives in the past, happily allowing memories of better times to flood her thoughts and desperately holding to small pieces of her family that way. Then, once her water breaks, the painful delivery, which she gets through almost without aid, pushes her body, her spirit, and her sanity to the edge and at times pulls her into an interstitial space between her immediate reality and strange visions and experiences caused by the pain.
Rocklyn has a knack for seamlessly weaving in and out of different genres while always keeping the same breakneck speed in the storytelling and not sacrificing atmosphere because of that speed. From the beginning of the narrative, we get a lot of backstory and memories, but they come neatly packed in passages that are full of information but only take up the space of a relatively short paragraph:
Unlike most other inhabitants, I arrived at the loading plank alone. I no longer had blood nor physical ties to the land we were abandoning, just the materials protecting my flesh and whatever could fit into my rucksack. My family were long dead before the waters and its creatures ate at our shores and our ankles. I’d shuffled along with the other defeated and frightened bodies, a stupourous yet blazing insolence holding tight the middle of me, keeping my sight ahead and my pride at bay. I felt of the eyes on me, on my wounds, on the bandages stayed I’d had to live in for three and a half months. I heard the sniffles as they breathed in the concoctions I’d mixed to protect what little skin I had left….
Flowers for the Sea does a lot with few words, but the thing that makes it an impressive debut is the way it operates on various levels simultaneously. On the surface, the story is a gripping, dark tale about survivors on the brink of death floating in a sea full of monsters and a mother bringing a mysterious child into that wretched world. However, just below that is a narrative that tackles Otherness, class and power dynamics, love while facing death by starvation, and the powerful emotions and undeniable physical horrors of giving birth. This last element, which more or less takes over toward the middle of the story, drags readers headfirst into a world of pain amplified by the fact that Iraxi has no desire to bring the creature inside her into the world and fears it will be the end of everything she knows:
Silly with dilution, I walk on my hands, crawling awkwardly towards the bow, towards the end, mouth agape and leaking like a sick mutt. But my zeal is cut short but my own fragility, my body failing me. I fall to my side, my thighs taking the child with me, my shift still hiding it from view. I have no desire to see it.
From the beasts that threaten the survivors to the world of anguish and blood Iraxi crawls through while giving birth to shiny fragments of the past we get and the strangeness of a being who’s born not only with knowledge of the world but also the ability to communicate, Flowers for the Sea gracefully smashes together fantasy, horror, and science fiction to deliver a short, punchy, elegant debut that isn’t afraid to get dirty. Rocklyn is a voice to watch.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.
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