Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina RatherA Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather
Published by Tor Publishing Group on October 31, 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Novella, Queer
Pages: 160
Format: ARC
Source: Received from publisher

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.

"An entrancing and transformative queer tale of cosmic horror."—Caitlin Starling

"A blood sacrifice of a novel."Meg Elison

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.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

An immersive historical fantasy novella, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is my first time reading Lina Rather’s work – and it won’t be the last.

Recently arrived from the countryside, Mrs. Davis is working as a midwife’s apprentice. The conditions are poor, but as a working class woman widowed in suspicious circumstances, Sarah knows this is her last shot at freedom. Midwifery comes easily to Sarah, which may be explained by her extrasensory abilities. 

Born with a rabbit’s tail, Sarah has something of the witch in her, an ability to reach for power from the Other Place. This power makes her an excellent apprentice and an object of jealousy, for there are other uncanny midwives practicing in London, but none with Sarah’s natural affinity for power.

There have always been mysteries in the birthing room, but the last several months have seen a rise in strange births. Uncanny babies are being born by the dozen, each with monstrous features like gills, fur, razor-sharp teeth, and more. Many of these babies are killed before they can eke out a life, but those that survive are like Sarah. They can draw on the power of the Other Place…and they can feel that something great and terrible is coming.

I loved reading about Sarah's work as a midwife's apprentice and would be delighted to see more working class protagonists in historical fantasy.

Drawn into the world of Christopher Wren, an esteemed man of science whose wife will soon give birth, Sarah isn’t sure who to trust. The other midwives belittle her and use her in turn, while Wren praises her intelligence and power. When Sarah senses that his unborn child will itself be uncanny, she’s torn. Is he an ally in her quest to help these strange children, or will the age-old wisdom that men do not belong in midwifery prove true?

With a keen eye for detail, Rather crafts an immersive story of a rather unordinary working class life in 17th century London, England. From the stink of an overcrowded city to the joyful abandon of illicit nightlife, to the fascinating and terrifying power of the Other Place, it all comes alive in Rather’s hands. Her depiction of queerness at the time is also praise-worthy: the intimacy and security that lovers find in one another is balanced with the very real threat of discovery. Sarah’s blossoming affection for Margaret, another uncanny woman, is bittersweet and realistic. 

The parts of this novella that I enjoyed the most focus on the actual practice of midwifery (with a hint of magic). At the time, midwifery was an important craft that fell under the sole purview of women. The tinctures, salves, and teas used in 17th century pre- and post-natal care are fascinating! As much as I enjoy reading about fine ladies, I would love to see more working class protagonists in historical fantasy.

A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is beautifully written and skillfully executed, evocative and intriguingly creepy. It’s a great selection for autumn night. Highly recommended.