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Someone You Can Build A Nest In by John Wiswell

16/05/2024
Someone You Can Build A Nest In by John Wiswell

John Wiswell must be in the running for title of the year for his debut fantasy novel Someone You can Build a Nest In. The title not only describes the book entirely but is also a pointer to the fact that while this is a romance, it is not going to fall into your standard ‘Romantasy’ tropes. In fact, Wisell turns many of those tropes on their head, starting with the narrative voice of a shapeshifting monster struggling to understand humans. And in doing so he delivers a heartfelt (if often violent) tale of otherness and belonging.

Shesheshen, a shapeshifting monster known as ‘the Wyrm of Underlook’, grew with her siblings in the ‘nest’ of their father’s body:

Her father’s ribs, rich in marrow, cracking delicately in their mouths, and providing the first feast of their lives.

After also eating all of her siblings, Shesheshen now lives alone in an abandoned castle. She is disturbed from her annual hibernation when monster hunters intrude. Two escape but she kills the third – Catharsis Wulfyre, the eldest child of the family that used to run Underlook.

Surely this wasn’t the first time Catharsis Wulfyre had been found wanting. This was simply the last time.

And so Shesheshen finds herself on the run. Her ability to use bones and other bits and pieces to allow her to take on human form is the only thing standing between her and oblivion. Close to death, she is rescued by a woman called Homily, and the two form a bond. Homily is an outsider herself, living on the outskirts of town and doing her own scientific research. Only it turns out that Homily is sister to Catharsis and part of the family that believes itself cursed by the Wyrm of Underlook and now hellbent on Shesheshen’s destruction. Soon the rest of Homily’s toxic family arrive in town to join the hunt and Shesheshen finds herself trying to both help and hinder their quest.

Writing narrative from the monster’s point of view is a tradition that goes back as far as Beowulf (both Grendel and Grendel’s mother) but also includes Shakespeare’s Caliban and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. More recently fantasy and science-fiction authors have been using this trope to great effect to comment on humanity and explore what it means to be human at all. Some recent examples are Matt Haig’s The Humans, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series and Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s Resident Alien graphic novels (also a TV series with Alan Tudyk perfectly cast as the alien come to destroy the world who instead finds himself taking a liking to things human, including Law and Order and pizzas).

This trope gives Wiswell plenty of scope to comment on humans and the way they behave:

It was easier to comfort than argue. Arguing was the hardest version of talking. You could have reasonable points and try to show as much empathy as possible, and lose miserably. At this point the prospect of speaking another sentence made Shesheshen want to burrow into the bottom of this ditch and never come out again.

Or this:

Homily said, ‘It’s fine.’

Then she let out a hot sigh. That was a kind of breathing that humans meant things by. Exhalations that weren’t words but were words. Shesheshen hated that nebulous sub-language stuff.

Wiswell takes this idea and gives it a romantic spin. Both Shesheshen and Homily are outsiders struggling to fit in. Their romance does not run smoothly. Even without knowing she is the monster they are looking for, Homily’s family take against Shesheshen (in human form). Through this and other plot devices Wiswell builds in some of the other ups and downs of classic romances, all while Shesheshen wars with the natural consequence of her attraction – the instinct to use Homily as a nest for her eggs.

But there is much more to this book thematically than just the romance elements. In particular, Wiswell explores the toxicity of Homily’s family, and the way in which Homily both responds to and has become habituated to the abuse she has suffered, and the contrast with being in a loving, supportive relationship.

All of which sounds overly serious but the abiding tone of Someone You Can Build a Nest In is dark, observational humour. Despite all of the violence (and there is plenty), this book is a lot of fun. When Shesheshen and Homily are attacked by highwaymen who call themselves Aristocracy and Plutocracy, Shesheshen considers how she will kill them. She realises that if she stabs Plutocracy, he ‘would bleed out before he could define his form of government’. But she also realises that this sort of violence would probably ‘stifle’ her nascent relationship with Homily:

Romance was awful. She couldn’t even do something as simple as murdering rude people anymore.

John Wiswell describes himself as neurodivergent and his short fiction has often taken the view of the outsider. (He has said his award-winning story ‘Open House on Haunted Hill’ ‘held a heart for haunted houses’.) In Someone You Can Build a Nest In, Wiswell once again successfully asks the reader to empathise with the monster, and in doing so, to consider those who don’t fit in or are marginalised because they relate to the world in a different way.

Someone You Can Build a Nest In reads like a fractured fairytale. Fairytales may be simple but often hide deeper messages and truths. This one presents an outsider’s view of humanity and asks readers to consider what it means to be human – or a least a good human. Or maybe if not always good, then just a considerate and compassionate human. In a world that is increasingly being driven into tribalism and absolutism, that can only be a good message to have out in the world.

This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.

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