She is a "Gracekeeper", a sort of undertaker at sea. She receives the bodies, she cleans them, binds them in net, and gives them a sea burial, out there somewhere near the equator in an area that should you come across it will be marked by wooden pontoons, on which birds in cages wait to die. The birds are the Graces, and whilst they live the mourners can mourn. When a travelling circus arrives to bury one of their own, Callenish meets North, a girl who dances with a bear. Their stories are separate but intertwined for much of the book, together with circus members, the military, those that who live on solid ground - the "landlockers", and those who live on the ocean - the "damplings". For the story is set at least seven generations after what must have been severe global warming as there are only islands, patches of land here and there, and the landklockers don't want damplings taking up any space on their land.
It's one of those books that I couldn't wait to finish, but kept stopping my reading so that it didn't end too soon. So why only 4 stars? Well.... I loved the characterisation, I loved the whole idea; but somehow, within this huge, watery tale, there was something missing, and when I got to the end I felt that I'd been done out of something.
It's wonderfully written, easy to keep reading. Each character of any importance gets their own chapter headings, but don't worry, for those of you who don't like things written in the first person (I went, I was etc), this book is not. The characters are wonderfully drawn, they came alive on the page very quickly, their emotions there for you to feel. The world described needs (like a night at the theatre) suspension of reality - for the reality here is a fantasy, a fairytale, with larger than life characters in the circus, and others whose characters go with the job. For example, Callanish the Gracekeeper - quiet, tidy, but wanting not to be out there looking after the watery graveyard; and Flitch the Messenger, taking and delivering messages between the islands and the boats is a shaven headed wide boy. The cover is wonderful with a look of velvet about it and all in all at just under 300 pages, it just begs to be read. It isn't magic realism, it is fantasy, and I should have loved it, but this time I only liked it. Full marks for the cover though!