Seanan McGuire is killing it with the Hugo nominations this year. Not only is her alter ego up for a novel nomination, but she has two nominations in the same category. While I wasn’t impressed by “Rat-Catcher”, “In Sea-Salt Tears” left me with a more favourable feeling. It’s predictable and a little trite, but at the same time it has a strong emotional core. It probes ideas about personal and cultural identity within the bounds of a fantasy setting, which is exactly how speculative fiction should play out.
Liz is a selkie, waiting for her skin. With such a limited number, acquiring a skin is a rite of passage all young selkies crave. While she waits, for what seems like an interminable period, she forms a lasting friendship with a Roane girl who always arrives to observe the passing on of a skin. This girl, Annie, captivates and fascinates Liz; for the first time, Liz sees an alternative to simply waiting to be able to join her brothers and sisters in the sea. She and Annie see each other irregularly as Annie passes through town. Eventually, they move in together. But then Liz gets that fateful call, the one she thought she had been waiting for. And she has to make a choice.
This is a tragedy, and not just for obvious reasons. (I admit I made the connections regarding Annie’s identity pretty early on, but McGuire handles the reveal in a way that is fulfilling and rewarding, especially if you were paying attention to the foreshadowing.) Liz has a shot at happiness, a happiness that is genuine and not built upon the perpetuation of generations of tragedy. But she is struggling against who she is, against what seems to be a hereditary need to don one of those slippery skins and frolic in the sea. The revelation that there is a dark side to the selkie secret makes the choice all the more tragic and difficult.
A lot of stories are made by the hero or heroine's rejection of temptation, by their ability to overcome adversity and triumph despite the odds. Like many tragedies, “In Sea-Salt Tears” is about the protagonist losing. This story is powerful because of the choices that Liz makes, the triumph of cowardice over love. She is unable to break a centuries-long cycle; she is just another generation of junkie.
This is probably my favourite nominee in the novelette category and the one I’d like to see win this year.