A Feminist Little Mermaid: Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss

I like The Little Mermaid in all its variations. The original tragic story, the Disney version, many retellings I’ve read, and some villain origin stories. This book is kind of a mix of them all. It retells the fairy tale but with a mythology twist, an f/f romance, and a good balance between tragic and happy.

THE SEAFARER’S KISS
by Julia Ember

Published: Duet Books, 2017
Ebook: 214 pages
Series: The Seafarer’s Kiss #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The amethyst dagger called to me from inside the drowned man’s chest. The purple hilt gleamed in the light filtering through the rotted floorboards of the ship’s deck.

Having long-wondered what lives beyond the ice shelf, nineteen-year-old mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.

Determined to forge a different fate, Ersel seeks help from Loki. But such deals are never as one expects, and the outcome sees her exiled from the only home and protection she’s known. To save herself from perishing in the barren, underwater wasteland and be reunited with the human she’s come to love, Ersel must try to outsmart the God of Lies.

Ersel is a little mermaid but she is different from the others. While other girls do their best to keep their bodies healthy for the big test that will determine their fertility and so their status in the merpeople society, Ersel spends her time exploring human artifacts, looking through sunk ships, and talking to her only friend Havamal. But one day, she meets an actual alive human girl on top of the glacier and – after some initial scepticism on both sides – befriends her. Ragna has survived a shipwreck and needs any help Ersel can give her just to survive the next few days.

This story starts out pretty much as you’d expect a retelling of The Little Mermaid to start, although Ersel is not a princess, just one regular mermaid among many, and they are all ruled over by a brutal king who makes iron-clad laws. Whoever disobeys pays dearly by having some of their scales removed (so essentialy torture) or being exiled. And with the merpeople population dwindling, a young mermaid’s fate is above all to produce children whether she wants to or not. It’s for the good of the people, after all.
But Ersel has nightmares about being given to some merman just to be his brood mare. She’s heard tales of women who are kept locked away and whose only purpose in life is creating more merpeople. They have no chance of seeing the sun, no friends, nobody who would dare help them.

It was this bit of world building that made this retelling slightly more interesting than I would otherwise have been. The characters and plot are all rather superficial, we never get to know anyone really well, the world isn’t particularly fleshed out, and the plot is predictable to some degree. But the tidbits of information Julia Ember does give us on her version of merpeople society kept me interested and reading. When Norse mythology came into the mix, I wasn’t particularly pleased (it makes no sense to me for merpeople to adopt the same religion as humans would) but it leads to a really nice twist around the middle of the book.

We all know how the story goes. The little mermaid wants to be human, visits a scary underwater witch, and bargains away her voice to get a chance at true love. Well, all of that is true, except the witch is actually Loki and he stays true to his nature, tricking people wherever he can. I won’t tell you more, but I was giddily pleased when I read the part where Ersel bargains with him and what comes out of that transaction. It’s not what I expected and I love being surprised!

The second half of the book is where we veer off the beaten fairy tale track and Ember’s own ideas are front and center. I loved certain aspects of this but they also felt like last-minute add ons that were thrown in so there would be more of a story. A bit of foreshadowing wouldn’t have hurt for some of the things that become important later in the book. I also liked that Ersel has to deal with the consequences of her actions, although there, too, I would have liked a bit more depth. It’s easy to say that Ersel sympathises with a character but it would be so much better if we, the readers, could have known that character well enough to sympathise with them too! For the things the book is trying to do, it was simply too short. With a bit more time spent on character development and world building, this could have been much better.

All of that said, I did enjoy reading this book. Instead of a teenage girl pining after some prince (well, shield maiden in this case), Ersel knows that there are bigger problems in her world. Sure, she’d love to go and explore the world with her new-found love, but merpeople society is seriously messed up and she feels that she should do something about it. It’s also about finding her place in the world and among her friends, about accepting who you are and who you can be. For a quick read and anyone who likes retellings, I recommend picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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