The Seahorse Diaries, I feel the need to address the cover for a moment. As much as we’re told to never judge a book by its cover, the truth is that covers do set expectations for a reader. The give us an idea of what to expect, based on how they’re designed and what they illustrate. Each genre has a distinctive look that speaks to its audience, and which creates shelf appeal (still a thing, even in this digital age). Unfortunately, the cover here does absolutely nothing to speak to its intended audience. It looks like a throwaway piece of gay fiction, at best, but the truth is that it’s so much deeper and more significant than that.
Uta Burke’s novel is an epic about science fiction, gender identity, and even world politics. It’s far more mainstream than the cover would suggest, and far more sophisticated. So, trust me, when I trot out the old adage of not judging a book by its cover.
At the heart of the novel is an interesting concept. A strange mutation has taken over children around the world, transforming thousands of young men, and giving them the ability to give birth. Nobody knows how or why it’s happened, but the government is extremely interested, and the medical community is falling all over itself trying to support, care for, and study these young men. Joss Engel, a young college student, is one of these new men. He’s known about his condition for years, but it isn’t until his first period makes a rather messy appearance that he’s forced to confront the fact.
Burke does a lovely job of exploring what it would be like to be the first of a new gender, to struggle with acceptance, and to deal with the expectations of the world around you. Joss certainly doesn’t have an easy time of it, and would gladly have his gender simplified, if only it was permitted. Instead, a strange night of comfort and friendship turns awkwardly erotic, and suddenly he finds himself pregnant by one of his best friends.
I won’t say much more about the plot, because it’s best if you experience how it develops for yourself. I love that Burke sets it against a dystopian near-future backdrop, one in which China is prepared to step in and conquer its greatest debtor, the United States. This helps to justify the more sci-fi element, and provides a little background drama. I do think the story’s a bit too optimistic in parts, especially in terms of how the citizens of the US are able to so quickly get the country out of debt, but I liked the darker aspects involving organized religious zealots and their fear-mongering regarding this new breed of men.
It’s a shame the story wasn’t longer, though, because too much seems to happen too fast. It’s clear that Burke needed everything to happen within the 9 months of pregnancy, but I would have liked to see the story develop a little more. There are some big, world-changing events here, but they just seem to resolve themselves a little too quickly and easily. That’s a minor quibble, though, because The Seahorse Diaries is still a fascinating story that’s as smart as it is intriguing.