Review: Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons

We are the interviewers. For a story.

And who am I?

You are the old sailor who remembers being a young sailor on Unicorn, a three masted schooner out of San Francisco plying the Pacific waters.

That sounds familiar.

You are Clarence St. Elmo, for a name. You are a bad poet lost in the sea of time, a castaway on an island where the dead gods wander.

That sounds awful.

And beyond a name, on that side of things, past the mirror and the window and the words, you are the Keeper of Shipwreck Light in the Sea of Suns and Moons.

Oh, I knew that.

That… is a truly delightfully weird book.

It jumps around in structure and time between letters from a sailor to the girl he left back home–to said sailor being interviewed by … someone–to stories about a most mysterious shipwreck and the island he came to inhabit thereafter.

Structurally, it’s very strange and at times hard to figure out what in the world is going on–but that’s all intentional. It’s really quite worth it in the end.

There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the whole thing–that is, if I really actually understood what and how, if anything, of the story actually happened. 😄

Well worth a read.

My notes. Thar be spoilers, most certainly.

You once told me you dreamed of befriending a kitten, adventuring with it upon your shoulder. When you awoke you searched blankets and pillows desperate for the friend left behind in the dream country.

You almost didn’t forgive my laugh. Well, my turn to forgive and yours to laugh, because ten thousand miles out to sea I searched under old canvases and behind barrels, frantically calling your name.

Beautiful style.

I had done it, in daylight of course, and like everyone else I turned right around to rabbit the hell out.


Of course it wasn’t. Before me, outlined in the opened crate, standing taller than me, standing much more firm than me, was a man. He had the head of a bird. He turned it sideways to consider me with one moon-bright eye. He told me to flee the ship at once, for the storm was coming.

Still dreaming?

I was a deck hand on Unicorn, a three-masted schooner that sailed regular between the China Seas and California. Well, that was my billet. Truth is I lied. I knew as much about being a sailor as I did about being King of England. Less, even, ‘cause I’ve read enough plays to know the words for kinging it. I wager I could make a satisfactory monarch a week before anyone demanded my credentials. But back then I had to guess when was my port and why was my starboard.

I like the venacular. And am amused at it beong easier to king than sail.

It was a whole cargo of darkness imported from warehouses on the docks of Stygia, which is my poetic way of saying it was damned dark.

Not so failed a poet.

Describe the Bird-headed man.

He was just a statue.

That’s what all the crates and boxes held. Statues.

You said he spoke.

No. I said he told me something.

Describe how the Bird-headed man spoke.

Well, his beak didn’t move, I don’t think. It didn’t really need to. It was like the statue was just standing in place of something bigger. Something so big it was in the box and in my head and across the ocean all at the same time.

I wouldn’t have been able to see him at all without the statue to look at.

I’m not sure if that is more or less creepy.

Do you know your own face? It is scars and wrinkles slashing the original picture. Your eyes are white marbles, the pearled eyes of a drowned man. Maybe, maybe. I’ll take that as it comes. But I see who I am this side of things.

You are just an old blind sailor sitting in a wheel-chair in the Old Sailor’s Safe Harbor Home.


Describe yourself.

I am young. I am strong. I am Clarence St. Elmo, for a name. And beyond a name I know exactly who I am.

Describe yourself.

I am the Keeper of Shipwreck Light in the Sea of Suns and Moons.

Elegant. Weird.

I have bargained with a mysterious stranger who assures me that he can give this letter to a cannibal tribe that preys on head-hunters who prey on pirates who prey on traders who trade with fishermen who pray with missionaries who fish for men who occasionally find their way here and back again, bless their pious hearts. The missionaries’ hearts that is. Not that the pirates and cannibals and head-hunters have hearts less pious. Please neglect to tell your reverend father I said that.

Such a way with words.

Then the Gypsy Cook jumped in with a personal testimonial for my snake oil. He got up on his own box and raised his arms high and announced to the assembled congregation the Truth. At least, the truth as he’d worked things out.

He informed us that the bird-headed man was Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom.

He explained that our cargo was dead gods on a cursed voyage.

The good ship Unicorn was scheduled to sink in the Sea of Time, and it would take us with it if we didn’t abandon ship.

The contribution of this announcement did not strengthen the seriousity of my pitch.


Things drift. Winds blow. Currents draw. You steer, you row, you cast things to the tide. Soon or late, words and sailors find their way home.

Not always in the same state they started out in though

He informed us that the saved and the damned rest eternally in the same absolute and consuming Fire. But the saints feel that Fire as a bright and joyous blessing of light, for they surrender to it. While the lost writhe in a flame that surrounds them completely, devours them eternally, and yet denies them even the peace of oblivion, for they will not surrender to the flame.

Well that is certainly another way of looking at it. I wonder what this is based on. A real sect?

The ship’s cat had been perched on top the stairs to the foredeck, shaking his head at the fuss. Now he gave a yowl and ran for the ship’s boat. He was first in.

That was good enough for the crew. That worked better than twenty speeches.

The one real sailor on board had cast his vote. All objections overruled, the motion was passed by unanimous acclamation of boot heels running across the deck.

I love this. The one real sailor on the ship: the cat.

Were there two books bound in green leather in the cargo hold?

No, those were in the Captain’s quarters, on the desk with the bones. Two books, pretty newly bound. One was in French, the other in something that looked like Greek but wasn’t.



And so we get a hint at the interviewers.

Describe the two green-leather bound books in the Captain’s cabin.

Describe the main doorway to the Old Sailor’s Safe Harbor Home.

Reset. Describe the books in the Captain’s cabin.

The Captain’s log showed pretty clear that Unicorn was contracted by a man named Banker…



But not for not knowing where I am. I can easily give this rock a name; and the island a name, and the sea a name. Then I would map the whole of it on this letter. K, I am not lost for lack of names. I am only lost because I don’t know my way back to you.

He is a poet after all.

The head nurse says you have the letter ‘K’ tattooed on your right forearm.

I am comfortably sure I do not. That was a clever guess though.

The head nurse says you have a Unicorn tattooed on your right forearm.

Another excellent guess but alas, no. Which leads one to wander into all kinds of wonderings. Who the devil am I talking to?

The increasingly surreal sense that there is a whole other layer here… And that the protagonist realizes it.

What did the Bird-headed man tell you? I was parched; I asked him if he could make it rain. He asked me where rain came from. I said ‘clouds’. He asked where clouds came from. Every sailor knows that. Spend a watch at dawn and you’ll see the fog rise. “From the seas and lakes,” I said. “Then the clouds drop the rain and the rain runs to the river and the river into the sea again. The water circles around like Hamlet’s emperor’s dust through the guts of a beggar.” He laughed at that. He liked that answer. I liked his laugh. Then he had me lean close and he told me a secret. He said there are endless such circles. Some are quick as fire, others slow as stone. He said that even the rock beneath the floor of the ocean rises up to new lands, and then wears down grain by grain into the sea again. And according to him, even the gods have a circle to follow.

A burning desire to know what in this story–in this world–is real.

Typhon was crazy determined to see all the gods dead. And to stay dead. Every last one of them. He wanted to pull down every pillar of every Olympus, send every god plunging down to Hell or New Jersey. Then he’d sow the smoking rubble with salt and lighting to make a final end.

Just skip right on by that ‘or New Jersey’ line. :)

The youngest augur declared “It can be no simpler. The King’s bronze chariot dragged chains of kettles and pots that clattered theatrical thunder as he rode by. He tossed torches in the air to imitate lightning.

He declared himself to be Zeus. Heaven struck him for daring to imitate the gods.” But an older augur considered. “Every time I lay with my wife, plow my fields, eye a shop girl, step on an ant, light a fire or hunt in the woods, I imitate the gods. When my wife weaves, gives birth, sings in the bath, serves me wine or berates me for eyeing the shop girl then she also imitates the gods. Where ever we turn, there they are before us. Why are we not struck down as well?” An augur even older shook his cowled head.

“It is not the act, but the motive of the act. Were you to declare yourself Zeus as you stamped upon the ant, then you would not be imitating Zeus; you would be replacing Zeus. Such pride draws lightning.” That seemed wise, and all were silent till the oldest Augur spoke. “Yes. Pride draws lightning. And this man was struck down for Pride. But not his own. When a man truly takes the place of another, whether it be god or man, then he takes upon himself the crimes of that other. This king faithfully imitated Zeus, offering himself openly, and the offering was accepted. Zeus struck this man down, in payment for Zeus’s own pride.” And so the bolt was declared a strike of Justice.

That’s a fun visual / story.

Or better said, I was the receiver of her charity first. But now it was the Preacher’s turn. Matsu put a hand to his drifting body and pushed him gently into the fire. His thin hair waved like sea weed, his limbs shuddered.

His clothes burned away at once, and then his drowned remains did the same. In his place there was a great black porpoise. It gave a twist of its back that shot it out the fire and round about the fire, circling Matsu. I laughed, Matsu laughed, and so did the Preacher-porpoise.

Preacher-porpoise. That is all.

The Professor studied the gods. Vivisected them, when he could catch them alive. Most times he had to settle for dissection or sharp analytical discussion. He considered his work the truest form of theology. He sought to understand deity, and how it differed from mere mortality.

Studying gods by way of dissection. That is a visual.

Expired. Ended. Became deceased. I won the duel. Despite his cheating, I might add. And then like a show-off idiot I drank that glass of victor’s wine. It tasted wrong but I finished it off till I was staring puzzled at a little grinning death’s head etched into the bottom of the glass. He’d poisoned it, you see, just in case he lost. He was a spiteful little wretch.

Normally, I would assume he somehow survived anyways. But in this book… Not so sure.

Eventually I realized the Captain considered Cook and I birds of a feather. I had come aboard solemnly asserting I knew how to kill and skin a whale. The injustice of that burned bad as blisters. My lie was never put to the test. That entire voyage they never presented me with a single whale to kill and skin. I might have managed fine.

He might have at that.

A guide who is what?


What? Follow the what?

I don’t understand the question.

Did you just reset yourself?

Would I know if I did?

I don’t know.

Well, let’s give it a try. Reset.

Did it work?

Did what work?

Stop that!

I was in a shipwreck once. If you like I will tell you about it.

Even not yet knowing what in the world is going on for sure, there are sudden moments like this that are truly delightful.

Describe what happened in the operating theatre of the Asylum.

I had a kind of fit at the door when I recognized the place where I had been disheartened in a dream.

How many times in the history of writing do you suppose disheartened has been used quite so literally.

Then the Professor shook his head. “We really can’t have the experiment proposing the methodology of the experimentation. It would affect the independence of our conclusions.”


We are the project team for the interview…

Oh, forget that. Look, I am trying to get what information I can concerning the lost last copy of an ancient religious book.

You are the last person who may have read it. The problem is, you are a sailor from a century and a half ago and your ship sank. Sank? I haven’t even gotten to San Francisco yet! I’ve never been a sailor. And the damned ship is going to sink? How fair is that? To hell with fate. I’ll decline to board. How do you know the future?

I don’t know the future. I know the past. I have a machine I use to recreate the world as it was. Better said, the world as it possibly was. The past is as indeterminate as the future. And not all the past, not all the world. But the creation of a world builds on itself. A world must grow or it crashes. And the more a shadow defines itself as a reality, the more difficult it becomes to control. The algorithm of existence is too open-ended. A world always escapes its creator. I used historical records, letters and pieces of my own life to reconstruct an old sailor who would tell me of the sinking of Unicorn in 1888. When I ask concerning some event, he constructs that world by recalling it. And by arguing it. He argues a lot. Then things began to go strange.

Answers! So very meta. I figured it was something like this, but it’s increasingly amusing how weird and twisty it gets from here.

Thoth sighed. “They also don’t notice if you refer directly to me or stomp suddenly on my foot the way you are thinking so don’t even try it St. Elmo. At best they will get an idea you talk to yourself, which this god knows, is no illusion.”

Sort of like the interviewing team.

“Exactly,” said Thoth.

I stared at him. “You can hear the spirit voice?” The god of wisdom shook his head. “I meant ‘an academic institution studying the unique ecology of divinity and humanity upon this island, is exactly what is needed.’”

He blinked innocently.

A simulated god conversing with an academic a century from even being born. Weird book. In a good way.