Epeolatry Book Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather
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Title: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions
Author: Lina Rather
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, LGBTQIA+
Release Date: 31st October, 2023
Synopsis: In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born, with eyes made for the dark and webbed digits suited to the sea.
Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness―having hidden her uncanny nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice to a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. But with each new unnatural birth, the fear in London grows of the Devil’s work.
When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who want to use her power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.
“Perhaps it’d have lived if we threw it in the river in time.”
This tight little novella starts with an intimate domestic gut-punch and surges toward explosive cosmic event. The unfolding dynamics are somewhat unexpected, with famous historical figures exhibiting modern sensibilities; the Wrens’ relaxed attitude towards societal taboos surrounding gender norms is refreshing, allowing Sarah’s story to cut straight to the quick. It’s unusual to find such a prominent real figure as Sir Christopher Wren, with his stamp still so visible all over the English capital, explored here with such liberty into his personal life and character. This is only one aspect of the book that makes it so captivating.
The characters are believable and likeable enough while maintaining some level of privacy from the reader. Our protagonist, Sarah, is fairly restrained and passive, though she acts on her own instincts a little more than she plays the submissive apprentice to the harsh Mrs. June. While we don’t dwell on personality, we do see clear motivations worn on the sleeves of each; Sarah, Mrs. June, the Wrens, and Sarah’s love interest Margaret. June and Wren have some form of manner about them, though the rest are fairly functional. It would be gratifying to see more of the dangerous, simmering power within Sarah that she supposedly cannot control, slip out, which would have allowed her more space to develop and, in the end, to be more of an agent rather than a channel. Even when Sarah’s power is cracked open, it appears that the events are happening to her.
The story trips along at an ample pace but is introspective enough that it carries a concentrated tension. We get the sense that Sarah is telling this story warily, waiting for what is coming around the next corner. The succinct, impactful prose has no time for lyricism or flourish, just the captivating, brutal events in Sarah’s journey. As a result, we are matter-of-factly immersed in the unreal London that nonetheless existed post-Great Fire during the peak of the witch trials. Keeping her distance and boundaries, Sarah relates only what she needs in order to tell this story, and we don’t know anything she doesn’t deem significant. Her romance with Margaret is secondary to her ambition to establish her own living and liberty, although when we leave the novel, it feels like the pair’s life together will finally have a chance to breathe rather than be put off and suppressed.
Existing between realms as its characters do, the book spans and evades multiple genres: dark fantasy, historical fiction, cosmic horror, queer romance. It’s horrific, but not horror. Love is present, but not dominating. It’s history, but reimagined. It’s magical, but so grounded in the gutters of London that it feels real. It paddles in a setting that was already somewhat uncanny, where lines were blurred—there was molten lead running in the streets.
The atmospheric world built up here is dark, tense and intense, mature, nuanced and hungry. Sarah has no naive conceptions about the world she inhabits and instead is acutely aware of what is at risk should she make the slightest misstep. She harbors complex feelings about her past and future, her purpose and being. The mutterings of demonic sightings and the tingles beneath her fingertips when resting on pregnant bellies conjure a brilliantly dark, threatening scene in which every move is carefully planned.
Upfront, the book touches on themes of the natural versus the man-made (specifically man), power, control and creation. Sarah’s simple ambition to live a life free from her oppressive employer, free herself from the accusations of her past, and to come up against the bulldozing demands of Christopher Wren’s wish to play God with magic and mathematics. Through their unlikely relationship we see a trace of the conflict between men’s and women’s approaches to medicine and magic. To channel, to wield, to instruct. In the woman’s hand, life. In the man’s plan, immortality. Inherent in these forces of creation is the power to sculpt the world in one’s own image (or not), and to lift others up or to use them. Survival is Sarah’s first aim, while Wren has the privilege of playing with the occult to meet his long-term desires. This holds a nice mirror to the disparities of the class system, and the hypocrisies of gender norms. Queerness and deformity also present as ‘unnatural’ bedfellows, with uncomfortable comparisons making themselves ready to ‘normalizing’ surgeries still performed on infants today, when “in the child’s best interests”. Sarah’s origin story as well as the climax of the story engage with this ‘fixing’, although in a fraught and unresolved way. Has Sarah’s own relationship to her body had no influence on her view of the interference on others’?
The beautifully fitting cover design by Andrew Davis features a blood-red-on-grey woodcut image of woman merged with beast, slashes rending through both to another place. And does the book deliver on its promise? It’s not quite Lovecraftian, but cosmic. Perhaps more time could have been spent developing the ‘lessons’ Wren gave Sarah, or the gatherings of the midwives and their unnatural protégées. Had we borne witness to these connections, Sarah’s isolation from both might have had more impact. I don’t want a black-and-white answer to the inherent goodness or otherwise of unnatural births, although the ominous premonition of malevolence in Lady Wren’s child implied more development of the devil sightings and an implied arc of fate than we eventually receive.
We do get some sensitive, authentic representation of a Sapphic relationship: not perfect, not without doubt or discomfort, not unerringly mutual. The rhetoric of the ‘endemic’ trend of unnatural births is recognizably exaggerated, speaking to a current pushback against LGBTQIA+ rights, particularly trans rights, mislabeling divergence from the norm as a dangerous trend. A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is a gripping, vivid and unflinching flash of its myriad thorny topics. Boil your apron and roll up your sleeves—it’s messy in here, and there will be blood.
You might like this if you liked… The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.
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