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The Pale, Liz Williams - Strange Horizons, 30 August 2004

The Pale, by Liz Williams

Liz Williams offers a science fictional take on the traditional selkie story in The Pale. We are sometime in the future, after global warming (presumably) has caused the sea level to rise resulting in a release of radiation into the seas from nuclear power stations and waste. The Scottish islands have been cut off from the British mainland by The Pale to protect the mainland from the pollution. On these islands, people have reverted to an earlier, less advanced society.

One day, a woman, covered in a "seal skin", is washed up from the polluted sea onto the shore of one of the islands.

Selkie stories are two-a-penny these days, and it's rare to find an original take on them, but Williams has managed to do so here. Certainly the arc of the story and its basic structure will be familiar to most readers. Nonetheless, Williams handles the familiar elements with a sureness that those who have read her work before will have come to expect and injects the new material neatly. If I was to have any criticism of The Pale it would be that Williams has a tendency to overexplain the new science fiction elements of the story and that the characters are not as fully-fleshed as they could be.

Selkie stories are almost always sad stories, and this is no exception. The woman-stolen-from-her-home-by-the-theft-of-her-skin inevitably carries a weight of tragedy. Williams exploits that well while keeping her characters believable and sympathetic.

The Pale is a finely-handled reinvention of the traditional selkie story that skillfully blends myth and science fiction in a convincing manner. As such, it is one of the better versions of that story that I have read.

- Patrick Samphire, 3 September 2004

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