Today’s review is about A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS by Lina Rather. Described as an eldritch historical fantasy, this novella features uncanny births and the potential end of the world. It’s also a story about what it’s like to live in between worlds or the rules of society.
Author: Lina Rather
Age Category: Adult
Publish Date: October 31, 2023
Print Length: 160
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Lina Rather’s A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is an eldritch historical fantasy of midwifery, monstrosity, and the rending of the world, for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Death of Jane Lawrence.
In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born, with eyes made for the dark and webbed digits suited to the sea.
Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness–having hidden her uncanny nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice to a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. But with each new unnatural birth, the fear in London grows of the Devil’s work.
When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who want to use her power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS is an uncanny tale about what it means to live in between worlds. After fleeing her hometown, Sarah ends up in London to train as a midwife under the tutelage of Mistress June in the Worshipful Company of Midwives. But late 17th century London has seen a spate of births of strange babies that seem to belong to another realm. As the din of whispers grow louder among city residents, the illegal guild of midwives–and high society with eldritch interests–plan how to harness this otherwordly power.
Before I jump into the meat of my review, let me first assuage any potential questions about the writing style. Because of the comparison to THE ESSEX SERPENT, I was concerned perhaps the writing would line up more with the styles of Bronte sisters or Jane Austen. Thankfully this was not the case and I read this novella with ease and interest. There were sentences that I felt needed to be shorter and less meandering, but that is my personal preference.
Both the title and official synopsis of this book accurately describe what the reader will encounter. There are births of strange-looking babies who seem both part of the human and some other world. I do wish a few more uncanny births, or at least stories of them, were described to increase the tension. But the point is clear. Many are stillborn or don’t survive long beyond the birth. Still, others do, some of which can pass as human while others will find a life of living in the shadows.
This “in between” theme is the strength of A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS. The main character Sarah is betwixt worlds in more ways than one, most blatantly with the fact that she is a woman. Women are human and a part of society, of course, but that very society limits their actions. And their actions must always occur within the permission and gratuity of men. So, naturally, women find ways to work around and within these confines. Additionally, though Sarah is in a lower class, her apprenticeship as a midwife brings her to all classes of society. Rich or poor, the pain or mess of birth doesn’t discriminate. This is how she happenstance meets Sir Wren, a well-known architect with an avid interest in the other world. Sarah also harbors hidden secrets that allow her to pass, but would result in a shunning if society were aware.
For a 160-page novella, I felt Sarah’s characterization was well written. I liked following her as she moves between high and low society. I even learned some new vocabulary when she spends some free time in some “less savory” areas of the city. However, I do wish there were more details about the Other World. I found myself wanting just a little more from this story that I can’t quite put my finger on. Though, perhaps this is the result of a novella- rather than novel-length read. Regardless, as the weird events seem to reach a fever pitch, Sarah finds herself torn. Does she sacrifice herself for the desires of the illegal midwives guild? Or should she instead harness power to form an unnaturally perfect world free of pain?
A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS is a supernatural ode to finding self-acceptance in a messy world. Society at large may have too many rules and etiquettes, particularly 17th century London. But having agency for oneself is a boon as is the ability to create a life on one’s own without being beholden to another, whether out of fear or a hunger for respect.
Content warnings: blood, stillborn birth, death, sexual content
Reading format: Kindle e-book