The Seafarer’s Kiss, by Julia Ember
Publisher: Duet (Interlude Press)
Release Date: May 4, 2017
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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.
Faerie tale retellings have long been a favourite of mine, the more subversive the better, and Julia Ember’s masterful reimagining of The Little Mermaid is one of the most clever and unique interpretations I’ve ever read.
Inspired both by the original Hans Christian Anderson literary tale and Disney’s now famous animated version, The Seafarer’s Kiss is narrated by Ersel, our ‘Ursula’, a chubby, adventurous mermaid frustrated by the claustrophobic and oppressive misogynist regime that is her home. Like the little mermaid we are familiar with, she longs to explore the ocean, and has a scientific curiosity about human technology, if not so much with humans themselves. She is ostracised by society and her former best friend now sees her only as a potential mate. Her entire world is changed when meets Ragna, a human stranded on an iceberg, and discovers she speaks the ‘god-tongue’ so they can communicate. The development of their relationship is fantastically engaging, and nicely averts several standard faerie tale romance tropes. Also, there are narwals. And you will love them.
I adore the merpeople worshipping Norse gods – of course it makes sense, if you’re God of the Sea surely all who dwell in your domain would believe in you too, not just those on the land – and the way Ersel speaks of, and to them is just excellent worldbuilding. Which brings me to one of my favourite things in the book – LOKI. I was immediately impressed that Loki is presented as genderfluid and referred to as ‘they’ throughout, in both internal narration and spoken dialogue. (I did count three instances where they are accidentally misgendered, but since I read an ARC I hope this was corrected in the finished copy.) Every aspect they appear as is viewed as no more or less than another, they always remain, simply, Loki. This particular iteration of the trickster god may seem slightly more malevolent than most people are used to, but their devious, capricious amoral nature is still very much evident here.
One thing that did catch me off guard was the mermaid society, which is basically an underwater Handmaid’s Tale nightmare of female oppression, with women used as tools to repopulate their declining species. Nothing in the promotional material prepared me for the level of potentially upsetting material, so please be careful when reading if this subject may be triggering for you. The way it was handled was well done however, and have no reservations recommending it.
Another aspect I appreciated was how the story was both a standard faerie tale in terms of plot and structure, the fact it was told from the ‘villain’s’ perspective allowed for a much more morally ambiguous tone, and while there is a redemption narrative both Ersel and Ragna are allowed to be often unpleasant, occasionally even downright ‘bad’ people. Ragna is brutalistic, Ersel thoughtless and indifferent; they are flawed, and that’s okay. We can still want for them a happy ending. Ersel is a magnificently atypical protagonist – not exactly an anti-hero, but not a compassionate saint either – and she gives me hope that everyone, no matter what mistakes they may have made, can carry on, learn from their painful past, and thrive.
Julia Ember is a polyamorous, bisexual writer and native of Chicago who now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Seafarer’s Kiss is her second novel and was influenced by her postgraduate work in medieval literature at The University of St. Andrews. Her first novel, Unicorn Tracks was published by Harmony Ink Press.
Find her online at: http://julia-ember.com/
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.