Wednesday, March 02, 2016

A Walk on the Guile Side: Guile by Constance Cooper

Yonie Watereye lived under false pretenses in a stuffy garret overhanging the Petty Canal, in one of the cheaper districts of Wicked Ford. Dry land never showed there, even in the midst of summer, and the rickety buildings roosted upon wooden stilts that would have long since rotted away if not for the water's high concentration of guile.

In that particularly July afternoon Yonie's hair was crawling with sweat underneath her kerchief. She longed to strip it off.

But instead she sat sedately in her chair, sweltering, because she had a customer. The kerchief made her look older, according to LaRue. Although at sixteen she'd already grown to a remarkable height, it still took the right clothing and dim light and her most imperious High Town accent to impersonate a grown woman. Even then, she might not pass as a pearly.

Orphaned and unwanted by the rest of her kin, Yonie travels downriver to Wicked Ford, eking out a spartan living pretending to be a "pearly," a part-amphibian seer who can interpret the guile found in objects left to steep in the waters of Skulk Swamp. In truth, Yonie's talking cat LaRue does the real "seeing," passing her wisdom on through Yonie on to their customers. Pearlies are shunned and feared, hiding their scales or gills under their clothes, but patronized by people with objects that seemed to have cunning powers, and a cat known to possess such powers would needs be killed if discovered.

And a customer from Damnable Swamp has a mysterious object he claims came from inside a fish. Following LaRue's vision, the object is revealed as a boat gong, probably looted from a flooded tomb. LaRue warns Yonie not to cause it to ring, but when she accidentally strikes it, she learns what its sound can do--it send folks forth, even against their will, to find their true home.

Yonie whimpered. Not since her parents' death had she felt so out of place and alone.

They had left Vile Basin behind, but Yonie was still digging in her paddle until her muscles burned.

"Yes, of course," said LaRue. "We must get home."

The bayou home where Yonie lived with her parents is gone, burned to the waterline, along with them, and Yonie sees she cannot find her home there. But with the guile-soaked gong driving her, she sets out to discover her mother's family history in High Town. She learns that her mother was a honor student at the prestigious Belflower Academy for Girls before she left before graduation to marry the man Yonie had known as her father. But Yonie's search reveals that her real father was another man altogether, and the guile drives a search which takes her and LaRue far up the Skulk River, to discover the frightful history of how guile came to flood their land and what it takes to break its hold on her.

Constance Cooper's forthcoming Guile (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2016) takes place in an alternate world, one reminiscent of the bygone Creoles and bayou Cajuns of Louisiana, a world which has endured an ancient flood and remains inundated in the magical miasma of guile, a power neither quite good nor evil, but unnatural, as murky and turgid as the greenish scum that floats upon the slowly rising waters. Cooper's narrative is as slow and meandering as the River Skulk itself, but leading implacably back to the source of guile itself. Yonie Watereye and LaRue are quirky but engaging characters who inspire loyalty, ones who make the reader follow along on their magical journey to its end.

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