The Gracekeepers is set in a flooded world divided into landlockers and damplings. The landlockers cling to what little land is left, controlling the food supplies which give them their power and their privilege; the damplings sail the seas endlessly, trading whatever they can find, whatever services they can offer, for the meagre supply of landlocker food (supplemented by fish and seaweed, which, of course, the landlockers won't touch).
Into this dystopia sails the circus boat the Excalibur, and so we meet the first of Our Heroines: North, the circus' bear-girl, who is inseparable from and constantly worried about her half-tame bear. The ringmaster wants her to marry his son Ainsel and restore his line to the land; North doesn't want to, but risks being thrown off the boat if she doesn't. She's also pregnant, and trying desperately to hide it as long as she can.
The book's second heroine is Callanish, who lives a lonely life in the graceyards at the equator, burying dead damplings at sea. Their graves are marked by graces, tiny caged birds left on the sea without food or water; when the birds die, the friends and families of the dead person know they can stop mourning.
The book is, essentially, about how North and Callanish meet, briefly, and how they try to find each other again to repair their broken lives.
Firstly, despite the SF trappings, I think The Gracekeepers actually leans more towards magical realism; in that I never got the sense that it really cared about how its setting works that much. (There are references to oppressive laws, a brutal military; but who sets these laws, and why? Why is it illegal to bury damplings anywhere other than a graceyard? What's the point of starving the birds alive?) In that way it reminded me a bit of Station Eleven: in that it's more about - or wants to be more about - what it means to be human than its post-apocalyptic setting.
Personally, this doesn't bother me that much if it's deliberate. But I don't think I have a good sense of what the book's trying to say. It's a novel that relies very much on its ending to deliver the appropriate punch, ravel up the various threads, reveal its message; but the ending felt to me unsatisfying and weak and somehow too easy.
I enjoyed reading the book, in the sense that I kept wanting to read on and see how Callanish and North would unravel their various life problems.
I just felt like it didn't exactly live up to its promise.