Rubem promised to help Lilas collect a few auroras–seemingly benign entities that usually root to inanimate hosts and helpfully produced ingit, the fuel that basically runs the world. Except one aurora clings to the crook of Rubem’s neck and Lilas is determined to have that very aurora for herself, one way or another. All the while, Rubem feels the aurora, the parasite, digging into his skin and slowly embedding itself into his body. All Rubem knows is that if the parasite goes too far, he will end up as a passenger in his own mind while the parasite controls his body. Rubem is far from home when he manages to escape Lilas, only to run directly into another selkie named Tavish. But at least Tavish seems to be better positioned to help Rubem remove the parasite.
As the youngest son of Findlay Incorporated, Tavish has access to the best science and technology with none of the oversight his elder siblings must endure. He decides to help Rubem on a lark, shifting into his seal form to take Tavish to his underwater home in Maraheem. But rather than immediately accessing the best and brightest minds to literally unravel Rubem from his parasite, they are found by Lilas instead. Suddenly, Rubem and Tavish are forced to run from one temporary haven to another; Rubem is fighting for his autonomy and Tavish is fighting to save his gilded cage from completely imploding. Together, the two men manage to overcome one hurdle after another. But it’s not without dangers, ones that force Rubem to learn and to wield the power the parasite can give him, just so long as he allows the parasite to bond a little more deeply within him. Despite their struggles, Rubem and Tavish find comfort in each other’s company. It keeps them fighting, keeps them alive longer than they could have hoped on their own. Yet it may not be enough to save Rubem or Tavish from the enemies drawing near, or their own fatalistic actions.
Odder Still is a wildly, lushly imaginative suspense mixed with a touch of slow-burn romance from author D.N. Bryn. It’s the first book in their No Man’s Lander series, which is part of the larger These Treacherous Tides universe of books. Odder Still clocks in at a hefty 400-ish pages and I was mesmerized by all of it. My biggest interest at first was seeing how Rubem and the aurora/parasite thread would play out. I wondered if this aurora/parasite would be its own sentient voice inside Rubem’s head, or be able to wholly take him over by invitation or force, and what that might have meant for the relationship Rubem and Tavish develop. In reality, this dynamic unfolded far less cleanly. Rubem and the parasite can’t really communicate and while there were sometimes emotions shared, it was at times hard to know whose emotions belong to whom. It didn’t seem like Rubem and the parasite’s increasing interdependence caused so much as a ripple in the romance thread with Tavish. Rubem’s relationship with the parasite stayed very fragile. The lack of a common language or clear feelings/expressions left Rubem feeling resigned about giving up his bodily autonomy. To him, it was just a question of how much control (if any) he would retain. Each time he gives up a little more control of himself, he promises it’s the last time…but there is always a next time. That in and of itself was a big part of the suspense of the story. Would the parasite consume Rubem? Would they melt together into a dual-consciousness? Would they be separated and go their own ways?
Another delightful part of the story was the magnitude of representation on page. I enjoyed how Bryn approached character description. Rather than boilerplate paragraphs dedicated to covering basics like height, hair and eye color, and so on, the physical appearance was more organically incorporated into the story. For example, no one seemed to use “blind” as a shorthand for Tavish. Instead, Rubem would occasionally notice Tavish’s gaze being directed slightly away from the speaker or the action. There were only a few mentions of his cane or other aids he would use. There are also multiple nonbinary and queer characters, but there never seemed to be a pause to spell it out. Similarly, there was no drama about Tavish being transgender. I thought it was marvelous to have such clearly and identifiably queer characters without those identities being used as vehicles to move the plot.
The plot itself developed wonderfully. The main concept was simple: Rubem trying to figure out how to remove the aurora. But that idea grows chapter over chapter. Lilas adds an element of danger as she is willing to stop at nothing to get the aurora for herself (as well as being part of a rebel group trying to overthrow the ruling class of Maraheem). Tavish’s family offers a sliver of hope, then despair, as Rubem realizes the matriarch is no better than Lilas (just far better funded and infinitely more powerful). Like the characters, the simple beginnings seemed to mix and fold into something more complicated and more interesting, but without losing sight of the main thread: Rubem and the aurora. I also liked that the physical world in which the story takes place was so varied. Even better was that these places felt every bit as dimensional as the characters themselves, even if a place only appeared for a few chapters (like the merfolk town) or not at all (like Rubem’s much longed for home of No Man’s Land). The attention to detail just made the story feel wonderfully nuanced and layered and, of course, relatable since different people in these different towns all had different ideas about what was right, what was just, and whether Rubem was someone to help or to use.
Overall, Odder Still was an incredibly satisfying read. I found the characters completely engrossing. The question of whether Rubem could safely remove the aurora was a one that constantly played and preyed on Rubem’s mind; it added a strong flavor of suspense to the story. The way Rubem is instantly attracted to Tavish and his charming personality and generously proportioned body set up a delightful almost unrequited love, one that eventually develops into a real romance, but is always tinged with fatalism given the ever increasing impossibleness of finding a way to remove Rubem’s aurora. And even after the dust settled after the big climactic battle, there was still a splash of will-they-won’t-they-stay-together at the end. And of course, fans of fantasy and stories featuring queer identities and BIPOC heroes will also appreciate the carefully crafted world and characters in Odder Still.