A summer job at a bed and breakfast in Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye may be only a ferry ride away from the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland but it is a world away from life in Glasgow for Siobhan Ross, perhaps exactly what she needs, and she had never considered any thoughts beyond paid employment and escape, certainly not a summer romance, until she saw Calvin Mack on the ferry over, but even with her history she could not have imagined it would be a selkie summer.
A student who had already been considering switching disciplines to marine biology, the sea had called to her all her life, and as a child she had encountered what she later realised had been a selkie, a member of the aquatic family of the seldom-seen Metamorpha of which she still possesses only a scant knowledge as befits the reticent nature they share with their cousins the kelpies, the forest wraiths and the sky-sprites.
A branch on the tree of life suspended with no apparent support, they remain a mystery, coexisting but not mingling as per the Treaty of St Kilda of 1910, these were all just abstract concepts to Siobhan until she met Cal, but even though he might just be interested in her, there are complications: her disapproving landlady at The Crossing Lodge, the prejudices of the locals who regard the selkies as unholy, the surprise appearance of her ex-boyfriend, and a navy submarine whose grounding on an uncharted sandbank speaks of supernatural activity.
A callback to the era when all the varied genres of fantastic fiction were gathered together under the catch-all of “scientific romance,” Selkie Summer sees Ken MacLeod stray from his familiar territory of near-future technothrillers and farther distant hard science fiction to take what is ostensibly a tourist route, although one reflected through a mirror of folklore and myth, yet it is recognisably his work, tied to the beloved Scottish islands of his youth.
A very modern folktale told with the rational eye of a scientist, Selkie Summer inhabits the same waters as The Moon and the Sun, Vonda N McIntyre’s examination of a captured mermaid in the court of Louis XIV, and like that award-winning novel the synopsis sees the surface ripples rather than the hidden depths, MacLeod ever the social commentator who considers the legal status of an almost-but-not-quite people who cannot interact with electronics.
In an age when all must be categorised and taxed, when representation and petition to power is entirely online, who speaks for the selkies when the shipping lanes and offshore windfarms encroach on their territories? And if it is to be Siobhan, is that all that Cal wants her for? A novella easily read in a single sitting on a sunny afternoon, Selkie Summer is pleasing and satisfying, a refreshing dip into unexpectedly buoyant waters.