Simon Watson is a librarian in the town of Napawset, on Long Island. His house, inherited from his father, is crumbling around him, as is the land it stands on. His father, inexplicably, never did the basic things necessary to maintain it against the forces of erosion, and the problem is now unfixable on a librarian's income.
That's before Simon loses his job to budget cuts.
But in the midst of the crisis, he receives a book in the mail, from Martin Churchwarry, a dealer in old and rare books. The book apparently belonged to Simon's grandmother, or someone who knew her, and it's the log book of a traveling circus. This is where we get the first hints of the strange family history of Simon's late mother, Paulina. Paulina was a circus mermaid, able to hold her breath for impossibly long periods. Yet she died by drowning, a suicide. And so did her mother, and her grandmother... As Simon uncovers more and more of his family's past, he becomes frightened for his younger sister, Enola, who is also a circus performer, although she's a fortune teller, not a mermaid.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters, Simon's story of his uncovering of painful family secrets that will change his life and his sister's forever, and the story of the first of their mermaid ancestors, and the fortune teller who finds her wandering, lost, and leads her to the traveling circus.
Both stories are poignantly told, and Simon, Enola, Alice, and Doyle, in the present, and Amos, Evangeline, and Madam Ryzhkova, in the late 18th century, become real and compelling characters. The fantasy elements here are subtle but crucial, as Amos and Evangeline experience unfolding disaster, and Simon, Alice, and Enola learn secrets they never imagined about their own families.
I'm instituting a new policy of noting Hugo eligibility wherever relevant. This book is eligible for the Hugo Awards in 2016.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.