Lina Rather’s novella, A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS, is a story of an epidemic (more on this word in a moment) of fae/uncanny-affected births in late 1600s London. It interrogates themes of gender roles, the nature of what it is like to born different in some way, and about the interplay between forces that are revolutionary and poorly understood dueling for supremacy in a world desperate to apply some manner of order to events that appear chaotic and uncontrollable.
Our protagonist, Sarah, is a young widowed apprentice midwife whose husband drowned under mysterious circumstances. Furthermore, she has a connection to these uncanny births–she was born with a tail… a tail that was amputated. Therefore, we see this world through the eyes of someone who can pass as an unaffected human, and who sees those born affected not as monsters but as something else.
Sarah, by strange twists of fate, finds herself working with a pregnant gentlelady with a husband who is a man of means and of reason and science (such as it was at the time). And her connection to this pregnancy as well as her own uncanny nature places her squarely at the heart of a struggle between science and reason and an embrace of the primal weird of the uncanny.
The book is a compelling read, and pulls the reader forward, layering in a deepening mystery at the heart of why these births are happening with every chapter, and more importantly, tying every development to the conflict at Sarah’s heart (navigating her place in a world designed to exclude people like her (people like her in many more ways than one)). And it leads us to an epic climax where the fate of the world lay in the balance.
If anything, it is the efficiency with which the story is told that may be my only “criticism.” We move from discovering the conflict, to discerning what it is that makes Sarah Sarah, to turning the page and finding ourselves in the climax so quickly, I found myself wanting more time spent meandering these paths, ruminating on not only what those paths meant for the world of A SEASON FOR MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS and its characters, but more importantly what they mean for the real world, and the way I see that world.
Because (and here’s where we pay off that very first parenthetical) how does one reckon with the central conceit at the heart of this story? As a baseline, it’s clear that to the people of London in this book, they do not want uncanny children. In their eyes, these uncanny children are defective–if they even survive. They’re cast out. They’re… other. One need not be terribly introspective to see the metaphor applied to our society. How does our society view children born… different? How should we? How do I?
There’s a peculiar type of fear to parenthood where you want the best for your child–how could you not–and you hope nothing goes “wrong.” What if my child were born unhealthy? Or with some genetic abnormality? So many birth announcements include some variant of the phrase “both baby and mother are healthy” and no doubt that phrase addresses this looming fear that is everpresent and almost entirely out of anyone’s hands but chance. But is it ethical to desire my child not be born with a genetic abnormality? Would I be unethical to hope my child be born striking some kind of genetic lottery–or at least avoid rolling genetic snakeyes?
And it’s the latter question that cuts to the heart of how Sarah and the increased incidence of uncanny births fits into this analysis and makes the closing description an “increased incidence” rather than an “epidemic.” Clearly, Sarah thrives regardless of her Uncanny nature. Clearly one can look around the the real world and see countless children and adults dealt hands not of their choosing and who are thriving nonetheless. And yet, still that question lingers: How would I react faced with similar circumstances?
It’s not an easy subject matter, and it’s certainly not something resolvable in a few hundred word book review. But, to my perspective the finest stories are the ones that expose conflicts within the reader and demand the reader look at hard places within themselves. Those, ultimately, are the stories we remember.
This is one of those stories.
A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS is out on October 31, 2023. I strongly encourage you to preorder it from your local indie bookseller, from bookshop.org, or the Seattle website if you must. (psst, as of this writing it’s cheaper on bookshop.org)