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

A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

I had the hardest time finding an indie book for the Retellings Challenge for several reasons. Number one, I admit it, I am biased and book covers do have an impact on me. So if I see a cover that looks like someone threw it together with Word Art, I don’t want to read that book, no matter how amazing the text may be. Plus, it’s really hard to find recommendations when you’ve already read the most “hyped” indie retellings. But I did find something (with a gorgeous cover, no less) that turned out to be really, really good!

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

Published by: Little Birds Books, 2015
eBook: 260 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: It was destined to fail because it was an artificial species.

Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.
Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.
A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.

Many fairy tale retellings use the original tale and give it more depth by putting them in a different setting or time period, by giving the protagonists a job other than “prince” or “miller’s daughter” and by giving them a backstory and personality. That’s what I love so much about retellings – that you can discover something new about a tale you generally already know. So reading about an android Cinderella or a Beauty who is also a gardener is something I enjoy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good way to retell an old story.

Esther Dalseno went a different route  in her version of The Little Mermaid. None of the characters in this book have names. The little mermaid is just the little mermaid, the sea witch gets no name, and even the prince and his uncle are only called by their title. It’s to the author’s credit that it took me a few chapters to even figure this out because the story flows beautifully right from the start and I didn’t feel like there was anything missing. There are enough original ideas to make up for this traditional way of telling a fairy tale. The prose in general was very good and made it easy for me to fall into the story. The one big gripe I have – and that goes to the list of baises I have against indie books – was the many, many typoes and even grammar mistakes. They got worse and worse toward the end of the book and that’s just not necessairy. A copy editor should have easily found those mistakes and fixed them. They’re not even style problems (which are subjective anyway) but really just spelling mistakes. That’s the only thing that ever took me out of the story. It’s a minor gripe but it bothered me nonetheless.

Now let me tell you why this was such a great book anyway. The little mermaid lives with her six sisters and her father in the underwater palace where they eat delicious food and admire their own beauty. The merpeople are completely emotionless and don’t really do anything, but learning about their species – and the way that the little mermaid just doesn’t seem to fit in – was quite fascinating. We don’t just see them they way they are now but we get a little origin story about how merpeople even came to exist. The same goes for the sea witch’s backstory which is revealed more and more throughout the novel.

The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely – definitely more closely than other retellings I’ve read and when I say “the fairy tale” I don’t mean the Disney version but the one by Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid falls in love with the handsome prince but what she wants even more than to be with him is an Immortal Soul! And because she believes that marriage grants you half your partner’s soul, she makes a plan to visit the sea witch and have herself turned human. She gives up her voice for human legs and goes to the palace to win her prince. So far, so predictable. But wait! While the prince may not get a name, he does get a personality. His father has just died and the prince is dealing with severe depression and self-harm. That came out of nowhere for me and gave the otherwise very pale character a lot of depth. In addition to the mermaid’s point of view, we also follow his and while I may not have liked him very much, I appreciated him as a character.

Once the little mermaid has turned human and lives at the palace, the story offers more and more original ideas that diverge from the fairy tale.The prince’s uncle (and king regent), for example, plays an important role. He was in fact the most interesting of all the characters. Servants gossip about how he picks a different maid each week to visit his room at night, yet he seems like a sad, lonely man. The little mermaid is quite scared of him (because she thinks his beard is an animal parasite sticking to his face). Figuring out the uncle’s character, why he is the way he is, and what his plans are for the future, was almost as much fun as following the little mermaid in her quest to marry the prince.

If you’ve read the Andersen fairy tale, you know it doesn’t end happily. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this version has a similar ending. The tone of the book is pretty dark right from the start, so a happy ending would simply not have fit! But even though you may know how the little mermaid’s story ends, you’ll be hooked until the last page to find out what happens to her sisters, her father, the sea witch, and the merpeople in general. I liked how Esther Dalseno mixed a predictable story line (if you know the fairy tale) with her own ideas in order to keep us readers guessing. The whole backstory of the merpeople’s origin and the uncle’s role turned this into a fascinating read. Except for the many spelling errors, I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this if you like fairy tale retellings and want to try something published by a very small press. I certainly hope Esther Dalseno publishes more retellings in the future.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

If you’re curious about the type of errors I was moaning about, here are a few examples:

[…] before her could examine them[…]

[…] usually the couple were sick of the sight of each another by one year’s end. […]

[…] he had saw fit to […]

But then again, you’ve been to absorbed to notice.

Again, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the story for me but it is something that’s easily remedied. If I can find these errors while reading the story a single time, a publisher should have been able to see them as well and fix them.

S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

little-homo-sapiens-scientist-cover

There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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