A True Pearl: A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rosie Sutherland

Posted 6th April 2024 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 2 Comments

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC, F/F, secondary biracial Indigenous character, minor MLM character, minor bi/pansexual character
PoV: Third-person, past-tense
Published on: 9th April 2024
ISBN: 1039008038

Set on the stormy shores of Nova Scotia in 1832, A Sweet Sting of Salt is debut author Rose Sutherland's bold and magical queer retelling of the Celtic folktale The Selkie Wife with a feminist twist.

In 19th century Nova Scotia, village midwife Jean Langille’s first love ended in a quiet her childhood sweetheart married to a man on the far side of the colony, Jean's reputation in tatters. Now, all she wants is to be left alone in her cottage by the shore, to do her work and try to forget she ever knew how to love at all.

Then, a labouring woman appears in the salt marsh behind Jean’s home in the dead of night. Muirin is beautiful, enigmatic . . . and barely speaks a word of English, having come from away to marry the fisherman who lives up on the hill. As Jean picks apart the knot of Muirin's silence and the two women grow ever closer, Jean feels a growing unease. She suspects the marriage between Muirin and her husband Tobias may not be all it seems. 

When Jean’s own past comes calling in the form of an unexpected visitor, stirring up old rumours and drawing her relationship with Muirin into question, she finds herself caught up in a deadly foxhunt with a desperate man in search of a mysterious stolen treasure. Jean must brave the depths of her own heart to save the woman she loves and uncover what Tobias is hiding—a Pandora’s box containing a wave big enough to drown Jean and Muirin both.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~midwives get RESPECT
~know! your!! myths!!!
~not all men sure but DEFINITELY this one
~the MC is Too Logical
~sapphic selkies ftw

A Sweet Sting of Salt is what I think is called low fantasy – there’s not a lot of magic at all, and what there is doesn’t try to explain itself. But it’s also a fantasy in the sense of, this is almost a historical fiction novel, but it’s one where queer characters get their happy endings without too much homophobia; where women escape and make lives for themselves outside of the patriarchy, again without nearly as much trouble as people of the time period probably would have experienced. It’s fantasy in the same way a daydream is fantasy, in that one aspect, and I really appreciated it.

There’s enough queerphobia in the real world, I don’t want to read about it in my fiction, okay?

But though it’s low-magic, don’t think this is a low-stakes, low-tension novel, because it most certainly is not. Anxiety for the characters had my guts in knots for a good half of the book, and there’s real, and really awful, violence, with the threat of worse hanging over the heads of the MC and her love interest.

It’s not a chill time, is what I’m saying here. A Sweet Sting of Salt is, well, sweet, but it’s also heart-in-your-throat nerve-wracking when it’s not giving you heart-ache – or both at once! Don’t curl up with this one expecting a calm cosy read, because that is NOT what you’re going to get!

Jean was outed by the spiteful mother of the girl she loved years ago, but earned back the respect of her neighbours by becoming a very skilled midwife. (This is not a coincidence; Jean’s amazing mentor, the half-Indigenous Anneke, deliberately set Jean to learning midwifery because few people are so bigoted they’re willing to ostracize the person their lives, or those of their female relatives, will almost certainly depend on someday.) And as the blurb says, the story gets moving when a heavily pregnant woman Jean didn’t even know about (what kind of pregnant person wouldn’t make sure the local midwife knew about their condition?) appears on her land late at night, only to go ahead and have the fastest and easiest delivery Jean has ever seen.

The mysterious woman is Muirin, who barely speaks a word of English – and yet, Jean is able to pick up on something between Muirin and her husband, Tobias, that makes her insist Muirin and the newborn stay with her for a while ‘just to make sure all’s well’.

I despise the lack-of-communication trope, where things could be cleared up so easily if characters just talked to each other clearly and honestly – but in Sweet Sting of Salt, the issue is that Muirin legitimately can’t communicate, as she knows very little English. And although the reader knows – or at least strongly suspects! – that Muirin is a selkie, and that’s probably why she’s so (charmingly) odd and doesn’t speak English, Jean reaches very logical conclusions to her own questions about Muirin’s nature and origins. A whole lot of assumptions are made, but they’re well-reasoned given what Jean knows of the world. This isn’t one of those stories where the supernatural is staring the MC in the face the entire time and they almost wilfully refuse to see it; although I was frantic for Jean to figure things out and get to helping Muirin, I could absolutely follow her reasoning when she came up with explanations for Muirin’s lack of family, her ignorance of the local culture, and even her strained relationship with Tobias. It was – kind of amusingly frustrating, that Jean was so rational? That there were so many perfectly obvious, perfectly reasonable explanations for all of Jean’s questions? There was just no way for someone in Jean’s position – in life, in history, in geography, even in the patriarchy – to put it together that Muirin isn’t a foreigner in a bad position, but an honest-to-gods selkie.

Part of that – and this is really my only critique of the book – is that selkies never come up in Jean’s thoughts or any other part of her life. I was really surprised that Sutherland never took the time to let the reader know what a selkie actually is – especially given that there was one scene in particular, when a child is asking for water-legend stories, that would have been the perfect moment to introduce the concept and make sure the reader knew the myth of the selkie. If you don’t already know what a selkie is when you go into this book, there’s a good chance you’ll be pretty confused when the reveal does come, as the book is written as if it’s taken for granted that every reader knows about selkies.

I mean, I do? But I’m a myth-nerd born in Ireland, where selkie stories are traditional. I’m not sure how or why Sutherland – or her editor – expects most readers to know what she’s on about. Selkies are not a type of magical creature that show up a lot in fantasy fiction; everyone knows what a dragon is (debates about how many limbs they should have aside) but selkies? Joane Harris’ The Blue Salt Road is the only selkie book I can think of from a reasonably-big-name author, and I don’t think it made enough of a splash (hah!) to put selkies on the map, as it were.

But as I said, this is a very low-magic historical fantasy, where the selkie reveal is a comparatively minor plot-point near the end of the book. Infinitely more important is the relationship that develops between Jean and Muirin, how trust becomes friendship becomes another kind of love; and there are definitely feminist themes, as the blurb promises, but Sweet Sting of Salt never feels like an IssuesTM book – I never felt like I was being preached at, or that Sutherland was stating the obvious and rubbing my face in it, as other heavier-handed storytellers have done.

I think it helps that the focus of the book is so intimate; it’s not an IssuesTM story because it is Jean-and-Muirin’s story. And a big part of that story is the legal powerlessness of women in this time period; is the specific danger most women and femmes face from most cis men, ie the threat of someone who is bigger and stronger than you; is the slowly growing horror of just how awful Muirin’s situation is – one that she is only in because of supernatural means, but that plenty of human women have experienced through history, and still do today. But I appreciated that these were all treated less as themes and more like real, practical problems faced by the characters, if that makes any kind of sense. It’s not about lessons for the reader, it’s about the stumbling blocks and hindrances and outright dangers the characters have to overcome to get their happy ending.

Sweet Sting of Salt is told from Jean’s perspective, and I think that was an excellent call. One of the things that drives Jean wild with worry as the book progresses is that she just doesn’t know what’s happening to Muirin – who is trapped with her ‘husband’ in a house even further away from town than Jean’s, somewhere even more isolated from other people. That tension, that worry, that fear, is one that builds in the reader too, as we – along with Jean – slowly start to put together that Tobias, Muirin’s husband, is not the caring and loving partner he initially appears to be. The more we realise that, the more we worry for Muirin, the more I was vibrating out of my skin with the need to know if she was okay and also to get her the hell away from him. Sutherland is an absolute master of pacing and tension – and at creating a character who wins our hearts so completely, despite having relatively little page-time.

Because it’s so easy to see why Jean cares for Muirin, why she falls in love with her. Muirin is captivating from the first moment she appears; odd, yes, but bright, shining through the pages. Her imperfect English isn’t enough to hide that she’s not just intelligent, but curious about everything and eager to learn. She is innocent, not in the shy-delicate-pure sense of the word, but innocent like a wild animal, unafraid to touch or hug or nuzzle, unashamed of her body and its workings, sometimes frustrated with her ignorance but not blaming herself for it. With Jean, she is frank and direct, making no attempt at demureness or being ‘ladylike’, free with her laughter and her feelings. She is fiercely alive, present, vibrant. She lights up the room. I’ve rarely come across a character who stole my heart as fast as Muirin did!

It’s no wonder Jean is drawn to her, then. But it’s something specifically, uniquely Jean that makes her care, care enough to push and push at the boundaries of propriety as she tries to put her finger on what it is about Muirin’s marriage that bothers her. It never reads as insta-love; instead I got the very clear sense that Jean is a person who is compelled to make sure others are well, that she wants to right wrongs when she can regardless of who’s involved, and that she is not willing – and maybe not able – to look away when she knows something is wrong. Yes, it gradually evolves into something more personal, into feelings that are specifically for Muirin, but long before that it’s clear that Jean is a pretty amazing person even when not motivated by love. She’s much more grounded, more down-to-earth, than Muirin is, but that’s one of the things that makes them so complementary, such a perfect fit for each other.

Of course, there’s Tobias in the way, and dear gods, just as I’ve rarely come across a character who stole my heart as fast as Muirin did, I have not often encountered villains I wanted viciously dead as badly as I did Tobias. Perhaps because Tobias’ evil is so disgustingly, terrifyingly mundane, too real and every-day. The gradual – I honestly don’t know whether to call it a transformation or a reveal, because for all that Tobias initially appears overprotective but very loving…he’s been a kidnapper and rapist from the moment he stole Muirin’s sealskin. Even while he still passes for a ‘normal’ husband, he’s anything but. So is it his true colours showing, when he becomes more controlling, more violent, more overtly dangerous? Or is it a change, a poisoning of his personality by jealousy and possessiveness and hate, the way a reasonably normal man can be swayed by, I don’t know, incel rhetoric or the like, and turn into a toxic version of his old self? I’m inclined to the former; I think if you believe it’s fine to kidnap someone via magical compulsion – if you don’t see how sex with someone who cannot (and for the record, fucking does not and would not) consent is rape – then you are already a terrible person, and it probably doesn’t take much ‘pressure’ at all for you to become more obviously, overtly cruel and violent.

I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Sutherland wanted me to take away from Tobias’ arc within the story.

This is the commentary on the selkie myth I have always wanted; an acknowledgement, a pointing-out, that capturing a magical shapeshifter and forcing her to be your wife and bear your children is fucking fucked-up, not any kind of romantic! That there is something deeply wrong with all the fishermen in all those stories who stole a selkie’s sealskin so that she would have to stay with him; that the ending of those stories, wherein the selkie gets her skin back and runs the fuck away back to the sea, is not tragic in the least, and the fisherman isn’t the one we should be feeling sorry for! The half-selkie children – often the ones to inadvertently return their mother’s skin to her, in the myths – sure, I feel really sorry for them. But their dad? Can take a long walk off a short pier, as far as I’m concerned.

(This book also manages to address something else that has always bothered me about the selkie myth; namely, what about those half-selkie children??? I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the answer delighted me!)

Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t think I had enough thoughts for a proper review when I sat down to write this?

Sutherland has taken the grain of sand that is the Selkie Wife myth and built upon it, layers upon layers of incisive insight, thoughtfulness, honesty, history, secrets, and love – familial, platonic, romantic, toxic, true – and the result is a pearl, precious and wondrous and perfect in your hand. If you’re willing to brave a deep dive into All The Feels, you will find yourself richly rewarded. It’s certainly going on my Best of 2024 list!

A Sweet Sting of Salt is a beautiful, moving, passionate book, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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2 responses to “A True Pearl: A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rosie Sutherland

    • Sia

      Sorry it took me so long to reply, I missed this comment somehow! But yes. I hope you enjoy it too – I’ll have to keep an eye on your blog in case you post about it!

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