Alicia Jasinka, The Dark Tide, Penguin Random House Australia, June 2020, 336 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760894726
The Scottish story of Tam Lin who was claimed back from the Fairy Queen by the woman who loved him has always been a favourite of mine, and I’ve read many versions and retellings of the story over the years. Alicia Jasinska’s book, The Dark Tide, brings something entirely new and dark and magical to the story, twining it with an old Polish legend. She spins it into a spellbinding tale about the island of Caldella sinking into the sea and the witches who choose one of the village lads every year to sacrifice to the tide to keep it from taking the village. When the Witch Queen claims the boy that Lina Kirk loves, Lina follows Thomas Lin into the strange and shifting world of the witches’ castle to claim him back, and finds herself bewitched and reluctantly fascinated by the Queen with no heart.
The story is compelling, and the characters are prickly and fierce and interesting every step of the way. Lina and the Witch Queen, Eva, are hard to look away from, and their reluctant, growing fascination with each other is beautifully drawn. I loved this twist to the Tam Lin story that draws the witch and the heroine together and sparks an unexpected and complicated passion between them.
The thing that caught and held me from the first page of The Dark Tide was the lyrical language and strong sense of the world around them. It was very easy to see myself caught up in the middle of Caldella’s double-edged festival, or wandering the crumbling castle of the witches. Jasinska catches the essence of the old, dark fairy tales, and then draws it sharper and more vividly.
What gives The Dark Tide its depth, however, is the way that it is woven with threads of love and sacrifice and magic. Damage is done, and the greater the love the deeper the scars left by it. It looks at the complications of family and guilt, and how that plays out. Lina has her own tangle of love and guilt and anger with her brother Finley, who was responsible for the accident that broke her ankle and stopped her from dancing, and those feelings are mirrored in Eva’s relationship with her sister who died to save Thomas Lin, as well as the darker nuances of Eva’s family of witches.
None of Jasinska’s characters are uncomplicated – the motivations that drive them each to do what they do are layer upon layer of selflessness and guilt and stubbornness and anger and love that become fascinating for the reader to unravel.
Jasinska also explores the nature of complicity – who stayed silent and accepting every year when the witches come for their sacrifice and another village boy drowned to save Caldella, and where is the line drawn when it is no longer an acceptable horror? There is an interesting point to be made in the way Jasinska describes the bright celebrations that happen every year, and the chilling undercurrent that reminds us of why these celebrations are happening. If this was to be read in a classroom setting, I would encourage readers to look closely at the atmospheric descriptions, and when and how they are used. Elements like the tide, and the village celebrations, and Eva’s sea monster, reveal deeper nuances on further reading.
In the interest of full disclosure, for readers who may be concerned about such things, there are uncritical descriptions of the two main characters smoking on a couple of occasions. The romance, however, is kept strictly within the PG bounds of a passionate kiss.
Diverse sexuality and attraction is an issue that is at once both present and handled with effortless nonchalance within the story in a way that I would love to see more of in young adult fiction.
Readers of 13 and up who have a passion for dark fairy tales and well-written fantasy are going to love The Dark Tide. It reminded me of the magical thrill I get from authors like Robin McKinley. Jasinska writes in her notes that there weren’t a lot of fantasy books with bisexual or queer main characters when she was growing up, and that she wanted to write one in which queer readers could see themselves reflected. The Dark Tide realises that with a compelling, darkly romantic fairy tale that I know I’m going to enjoy going back to again and again.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke