Release Day 5bat! Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

September 11, 2012 Review 8

The Brides of Rollrock Island

by Margo Lanagan

Genre: Historical Fantasy |
Excerpt: No | Book Trailer: No
Reviewed by: Julia | Source: Netgalley

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers; September 11, 2012
  • ISBN-10: 0375869190
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375869198


Near Perfect – Buy two copies: one for you and one for a friend.

Sexual Content

Kissing, references to sex, coerced marriage and sex.


On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings–and to catch their wives.

The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.

Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.


I often describe urban fantasy novels as “dark” when there’s violence and pain, loss and mourning.  THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND is wrapped in gossamer strands of darkness so pervasive, so heartbreaking and real, I need a new word to evoke the pain of these characters.  Lanagan explores the mythology of the seal-wife, a woman taken from the sea and kept by hiding her seal pelt.  Through generations, through many different eyes, she writes a first hand view of human cruelty and petty betrayal, of a community imploding in on itself.

This book explores an aspect of human relationships that I’d rather not delve into, the hunger a man can feel for a compliant, nubile girl.  The seal-brides of Rollrock are chillingly childlike in their lack of agency, passive and plaintive and wishing for the sea. The writing is beautiful, chronicling each fissure in the bleak little village. Magic as horror, a legacy of heartbreak and otherness in the bloodlines of the village… there’s no way I can do justice to how thoroughly Lanagan ensnared me in her net.  I was angry and disgusted and sad and mesmerized, I could not look away.

I had to force myself to finish this book, but I am glad that I did.  Lanagan doesn’t flinch from the horror of her seal-brides, the petty selfishness of enthrallment and love, and it is just that unblinking gaze through the generations that elevates this story from a painful exercise to a very realistic and human story.  I loved the frailty of Lanagan’s seal-wives.  She gives her mythology a loose genetics, where seal mothers impart wildness to their daughters with their X chromosome but the fathers’ Y keeps their sons anchored to the shore.  With those sons that grow up under the shadow of their sad mothers, the daughters lost to the sea, Lanagan makes this a story of families and consequences, not just magic and passion.  Forgiveness and revenge, frailty and strength, there are tiny acts of heroism and betrayal that shape this story, as well as intimate portrayals of characters that fail themselves, that are hurt and pass on that heartbreak to others.

THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND is not a comfortable book, but it is a beautiful one.  Lanagan is utterly realistic in the the world she created, through the rhythm of the characters’ speech, the small pleasures and terrible betrayals of humans to each other.  Normally I reference the Brothers Grimm whenever an author explores the consequences of magic in a realistic way, but that comparison doesn’t fit for Lanagan.  She added a drop of magic to an entirely human world and the results felt anything but fictional.

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8 Responses to “Release Day 5bat! Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan”

  1. tarynwanderer

    Hi Julia,

    Lovely review! I’m glad to see you enjoyed The Brides of Rollrock Island as much as I did. I thought the way you described the sons of the seal-women and human men–as tethered to the land by their Y chromosomes–was a turn of phrase Lanagan herself would be proud of. 🙂

    Thanks for linking to my review, and happy reading!

    • Julia


      I couldn’t quite get the Mendelian square to work out, but I loved that whatever gender the seal-parent was, that child went back to the sea. It seemed like such concrete detail for a mythological situation.

      You did a beautiful job describing the characters’ relationships and claustrophobic world, I really enjoyed reading your review. Thanks for returning the favor!

    • Julia

      I really did have to force myself past the halfway point, Carol, but all that I can promise you is that Lanagan isn’t writing misery for misery’s sake. She creates a very specific mood in this book, exploring the cascading consequences of this magic, but the depression and anger and disgust did make the ending that much more of a relief. Not light reading, but one worth tucking away for a rainy day.

    • Julia

      Thanks, Tiff! I hope you enjoy it. This book will definitely engender a strong emotional reaction, Lanagan really sucked me into this world.

  2. Alexa

    I’m so happy that I got a copy of this book at ALA! I heard that it is the book to read for a dark magical world that is difficult to read about but so worth the read.

    Thanks for the awesome review because now I know I made a good decision by getting this. 🙂