Aboard the ship Scylla, there is no future or past. Jaq, her fickle lover Lily, and their all-female crew exist in an endless present. It’s better this way. At least it keeps Lily by Jaq’s side, where she belongs. But the meddling gods care little for Jaq’s longing, and despite her protective rituals, their punishment arrives all the same:
A man, adrift on the open ocean. Delivered to snatch Lily from Jaq’s arms forever.
Jaq knows what to do. She’s lost Lily before. Her lover will return—when this interloper, this distraction, is snuffed out. But Jaq’s murderous schemes may not be enough. The intruder’s presence infects her crew with a plague her spells cannot cure: memory. And as the women recall how they came to Scylla, their minds bend one by one towards revenge.
Including Lily’s. Especially Lily’s.
Now Scylla draws closer to shore, leaving Jaq with an impossible choice. Deny Lily and evoke her ire. Or join her—and possibly lose her for good.
With Merciless Waters, Rae Knowles (The Stradivarius) dishes up a deliciously demonic, sapphic Anti-Disney fairy tale, complete with talking sea snake. It’s a delightful, and delightfully subversive, read.
Jaq lives on Scylla, an enchanted ship that wanders the adriatic sea in an eternal present. She and her shipmates, a multicultural group of women, are led by their captain, Lucinda. Jaq seems to understand as little about this state of affairs as we do. We know that they drift endlessly. We know that the previous crew of men is trapped in Jaq’s little ship in a bottle, shrunken down by some magic. We know that Jaq is hopelessly in love with Lily, whose affections are mercurial.
And it is likely that life upon Scylla would go on in the same way forever if it weren’t for the rescue of Reginald, a man found floating, nearly dead, at sea. The women allow Reginald to live, and Lily seems to have fallen under his spell, and soon the entire ship is disrupted as Reginald tries to take command.
The greatest danger to the crew, turns out to be the return of memory, to the time before their sanctuary on Scylla, stories that are told in brief vignettes that allow Knowles to stretch well beyond the confines of the book’s limited setting, telling multiple stories of tragedy.
What Jaq eventually learns is that the whole crew are Rusalki, magically undead and whole while on Scilla, horrifying and rotten beneath the waves. And this death in life appears to be a kind of curse, broken only by finally taking vengeance on whatever forces led to their initial deaths.
There’s only one problem: For Jaq, this life is not punishment. In fact, life aboard ship, with Lily, is the freest and happiest she has ever been, and living forever in an eternal now with the woman she loves sounds pretty alright.
Unfortunately, Lily has other ideas, and the book becomes almost an ethical thought experiment that weighs the relative merits of vengeance and forgetting (if not forgiving).
At a hundred pages, Merciless Waters is a bite-sized delight, beautifully written, and suffused with a kind of mad joy, even (or especially) when the women are behaving very, very badly.