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The Rathbones: Mystics by the sea

A young girl examines her family's spooky ocean dynasty in Janice Clark's debut novel.

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The Rathbones, the 18th-century whaling family at the center of Janice Clark's debut novel, have a mystical connection to the ocean. Moses Rathbone, the family patriarch, could feel the water's current when he was on land, predict the weather, see miles out to sea, and swim underwater for ten minutes. Most providentially, he could sense whales.

Moses built a dynasty on the shore of Connecticut, sending out whaling ships every year, manned by Rathbone sons and grandsons who'd inherited the family gift, and bringing in whale oil and gold by the barrel.

For Moses, gifted Rathbone progeny were a commodity second only to blubber, and there's nothing like polygamy for dynasty building, so a string of 17 wives were brought in to beget dozens of sons (and the odd daughter, quickly disposed of). As those sons grew, the family went to increasing lengths to find wives and whales. Their link to the sea began to fray.

One hundred years later the dynasty has crumbled. Fifteen-year-old Mercy lives in the family house with her lonely mother and a few weird cousins. Left largely to herself while her mother paces the widow's walk, Mercy stumbles upon a dark secret that starts her on a journey to uncover the history of the Rathbones.

Part gothic epic, part steampunk farce, The Rathbones is populated with sailors and their ships, feuds, legends, men who talk to whales, and bones that can sing. Accompanied by her cousin Mordecai, Mercy spies on other whaling families, becomes a skilled sailor, and visits strange women who live in caves to slowly uncover how her once great family lost the sea.

"Once you kill your first whale you will never want to stop, the more you kill the more you will want to kill, until there isn't a whale left in all the seas," one Rathbone wrote. While Mercy's story is an adventure, it's also an examination of the Rathbone gift, the family's subservience to it, and how a gift can become an obsession and then a curse.

As it becomes clear that Mercy shares more with her great-great-grandfather Moses than just his green eyes, she may be the last chance to "renew the family, regain the sea"—as her uncle hopes—or she may be the only one who, instead, can manage to abandon it forever.

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