Liz Bourke Reviews Someone You Can Build a Nest In by John Wiswell – Locus Online


Someone You Can Build a Nest In, John Wiswell (DAW 978-0-75641-885-4, $28.00, 320pp, hc.) April 2024.

Someone You Can Build a Nest In is award-winning short fiction writer John Wiswell’s debut novel. I went in expecting good things, and I wasn’t disappointed. The most straightforward shorthand I have to describe it is: ‘‘It’s as if T. Kingfisher wrote one of her fantasy romance novels from the point of view of the monster, but an asexual sapphic one with even more anthropophagy.’’ Kingfisher’s weirdness of worldbuilding and batshit hijinks are the best point of comparison here, but Wiswell has a voice and an energy all of his own: The novel is an absolute bloody delight.

Shesheshen is a shapeshifting monster who lives in a ruined manor. She constructs her body from the remains of previous meals, taking chains and rocks, bones and organs, inside her amorphous flesh in order to build whatever form she needs. Every winter she hibernates, dreaming restful dreams. But this winter, her hibernation is inter­rupted early by monster-hunters who’ve come seeking her nonexistent heart to break an alleged curse on the Wulfyre family that rules the local region. Weak from her torpor, Shesheshen isn’t quite able to just eat all the hunters and go back to sleep: instead they chase her from her home, injure her with a poisoned crossbow bolt, and run her off a cliff.

That might’ve been the last of Shesheshen, if it weren’t for the warm and kind human who – be­lieving Shesheshen to be human too – fished her out of the river at the bottom of the cliff, tended her wounds, and nursed her back to health. Homily is generous and giving, as well as funny and fascinat­ing: an ideal prospective co-parent, a wonderful place for Shesheshen to lay her eggs so that their young could devour her from the inside out.

That’s not how humans think of love, Shesheshen realises. And Shesheshen won’t do it without Hom­ily’s consent – but how do you ask about having that kind of relationship when you’re keeping your real identity a secret? Then Homily reveals she’s in the area to hunt a shapeshifting monster, the storied Wyrm of Underlook, that’s allegedly cursed her family. Can Shesheshen help?

Shesheshen knows she hasn’t cursed anyone. And though the simplest course of action would be to just eat Homily, she likes her company too much. But why do the Wulfyres believe she has cursed them? What’s up with Baroness Wulfyre? And how come Homily is the only member of the Wulfyre family to possess empathy rather than cruelty?

Shesheshen still wants to be honest with Homily. And… not lay eggs in her? She’s coming to under­stand that Homily is kind and giving to a fault because her family have abused her into believ­ing she doesn’t deserve to keep anything back for herself. Shesheshen doesn’t want to do that to her, too. She wants to protect Homily. Unfortunately, life isn’t exactly straightforward when you’re an amorphous shapeshifting monster with little practice talking to humans or understanding their emotions, as opposed to eating the ones that try to kill you. Especially when you’re in the middle of a military operation aimed at hunting – well, you. And when there’s at least one more unexpected monster running around in the woods.

Wiswell has done a great job of making some of the humans so deeply unpleasant that the reader is, in fact, rooting for them to get eaten. Slowly. From the toes up. Although it’s eventually revealed that one of those deeply unpleasant humans is not hu­man at all, but another shapeshifting monster, the ways in which they’re monstrous are very human, and supported by all the tools of human hierarchy and ‘‘civilisation.’’

I don’t want to ruin the revelation, which in retrospect is well-signposted and very apposite and also delightfully twisted, so let’s just say that issues around parenthood and families and re­production are a serious theme that runs through this work. That theme combines with an ongoing argument about what it means to be monstrous: Shesheshen is a remarkably appealing character, and her willingness to predate on humans is entirely understandable given her experience of them, quite aside from her biology. It’s clear that Shesheshen has spent a significant amount of time observing human society from the outside, and hasn’t simply indiscriminately ingested everyone who crossed her path. It’s also clear, right from the very beginning, that Shesheshen is a person capable of great affection and empathy – though at first we only see this affection directed at the giant blue-furred bear, Blueberry, whose role in her life lies somewhere between pet and friend.

(Shesheshen is, perhaps, a little lonely.)

Homily is another appealing character, though we only ever see her from Shesheshen’s point of view. She’s desperately kind. She loves whole­heartedly. She wants to help her family. She’s also a walking collection of trauma and coping mechanisms in a trenchcoat, on account of her family being a seriously screwed-up collection of abusive assholes.

Her (at first tentative, later wholehearted) asexual romance with Shesheshen is appropri­ately awkward, brimful of secrets and tension, and entirely heartwarming. Several people I spoke to (enthused at) about this book expressed a concern that the love interest would get eaten, so it feels important to note that no, Homily does not get eaten. Instead, she gets to (begin to) heal.

This is a fast-paced and gloriously weird novel, full of explosive shenanigans and touching senti­ment. It also manages to be an exploration of the queerness and the surprising fragility of monstrous bodies, as well as their resilience. From my per­spective, there’s a certain amount of body horror here and perhaps a little too much slaughter for me to be entirely comfortable, but in terms of tone, Someone You Can Build a Nest In is in high-stakes romantic adventure territory, rather than leaning towards the grim or noirish (or even high-angst) end of the spectrum. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a remarkably accomplished debut. I can’t wait to see what Wiswell does next.

This review and more like it in the March 2024 issue of Locus.

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