Merciless Waters by Rae Knowles
Brigids Gate Press
A Horror Book Review by Justin Allec
Rae Knowles’ second novella, Merciless Waters, stretches rusalka myths around a corrupting love triangle for a story of seafaring discovery and revenge. With writing both evocative and lush, Waters fabled voice centers on Jaq, a member of the good ship Scylla’s eternal crew and the spurned lover of Lily. Jaq’s efforts to win Lily back and learn the truth of her eternal present blends high-seas sapphic romance with the saltiest of revenge. Characters are sharp and distinct, the mythology vibrant, and the dialogue, befitting of a twisted romance, is delightful, full of dramatic claims and deadly statements. In its lean novella form, Knowles weaves the tragic dance between Lily and Jaq while also reveling in the gorier side of the rusalka and their appetites for violent men:
“I’ve never felt so full, so nourished. A deep craving finally satisfied. I see so clearly now the cause. A simple truth known long to men and only now discovered by womenfolk. We crave violence. So we swallow violent men.”
The pains of memory and the thrill of violence all shape Jaq’s journey, leading to a crackling conclusion. It’s a fun romp in this ‘olden times’ milieu, the kind of setting where characters say “aye” and actually mean it.
When a man is rescued from the sea and taken aboard the Scylla, he’s quickly adopted by Lily to the detriment of the whole ship, but to Jaq in particular. Jaq’s crushed because her almost-forever love Lily has left her, so of course part of the action is trying to woo her back. With the correct era echoed in both dialogue and narrative—it’s not easy to make that stuff spring of the page and not sound tedious, but Knowles mostly pulls it off except for a few exposition dumps—there’s little time wasted with the mechanics of the ship itself: this is no Sharpe novel, after all. Nope, instead to focus is on the dramatic and dangerous, with interaction and reveals, especially once the ship’s crew start remembering their pasts and the common factor of their deaths.
Though Jaq is our way into the story, she doesn’t necessarily occupy the ‘main character’ space on the ship the whole time. The story continues, especially from Lily’s end, which really left Jaq at times reminding me of the fainting Victorians, unfortunately. However, applause given as Knowles sketches out a ragtag crew of sailors with minimum details but maximum inference. In a story this tight, characters must stand tall, and you really get a sense of how Lily, Lucinda, Yinka, Tahi, and others interact on this eternal ship before Reginald sends it all into disarray.
Knowles keeps up with Jaq’s voice throughout, whether its submerged sapphic sex or grisly dismemberment, but what was most fun to follow was Jaq’s journey in loving Lily. It’s flawed and damning, even before involving a body count, and makes Merciless Waters an entertaining way to spend a few hours.
Merciless Waters by Rae Knowles
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 punishmentarrives 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.