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. From Goodreads.
I have been excited to read The Seafarer's Kiss by Julia Ember ever since I first heard of it. I'm a massive fan of The Little Mermaid, and have been desperate for more retellings, having only read Drown by Esther Dalseno. And The Seafarer's Kiss is a bisexual one, with added Norse mythology. It sounds so good! However, now I've finished this book, I'm left with mixed feelings.
The story itself is pretty good. The world building is brilliant, set in a patriarchal mermaid society ruled by a tyrannical king. Fewer and fewer merfolk are born each year, so at the age of 19, mermaids must undergo The Grading, a test which discovers how fertile they are - which creates competition around the mermaids, on who they believe to be the most fertile or not due to how they look after themselves, which leads to bullying. Once known, the mermen compete for the most fertile mermaids. The mermaids are allowed to turn mermen down, but it's expected that they choose someone to mate with, and get to mating pretty quickly. Once eggs have been laid, the mothers go onto their own form of solitary confinement, practically a prison, until the eggs are hatched. And then the cycle of mating and laying eggs must begin again. Mermaids do not have much of a life, and their life is miserable.
Ersel has no interest in becoming someone's mate and spending the rest of her life bringing children into the world. Ever since she was a child, she had a dream with her best friend Havamal, that they would eventually leave the ice glacier that is their home and explore the oceans. They have always been interested in ship wrecks and the human treasures discovered there, and they both wanted to adventure out and discover more of the world. Until Havamal becomes one of the King's Guard, and turns his back on their dreams. He still wants to be with Ersel, but he doesn't see why she is so against a life at the glacier. The dreams they had were childhood dreams, and nothing more - except for Ersel.
When Ersel discovers a human, Ragna, stranded on the glacier, it sets off a course of events that changes her life. Getting to know this woman opens up a whole new world of possibilities for Ersel, the dreams she had evolve and build. She can still have the life she wanted, a life of exploring, but this time, with Ranga. Until she is discovered with Ragna by Havamal. Havamal gives her a choice; mate with him, or he will kill Ragna. It's then that Ersel seeks the help of the Norse god Loki, and everything takes a turn for the worst.
It was a pretty good story, but it's only 212 pages long. It's so short, and everything happens so quickly. There wasn't any time for me to get emotionally involved. I was intrigued by the story, but I didn't care about Ersel, or anyone else, really. There are some terrible things that happen in this book, but they had no emotional impact on me. I also didn't really feel the bond Ersel had with Havamal, nor her new feelings for Ragna. There just wasn't enough development there for me. Also, there are certain things it would have been better to have seen than be told about; things happen at the ice glacier after Ersel is exiled, and we - along with Ersel - get told about them from other characters, , but they are huge, important things! The Seafarer's Kiss is told in first person perspective from Ersel's point of view, but at those moments, the story could have switched to third person and follow a different character, so we got to see what happened. There are a lot of weeks that pass for Ersel where nothing much happens, and although we don't see those weeks, they happen between chapters, that would have been the perfect time for us to see what was going on elsewhere. And as great as the world building is, I couldn't tell you how merfolk mate, nor how eggs are laid, and considering that mating is a huge thing in their society, I would have thought the biology of of merfolk would have been explained somehow. There is an off-the-page human sex scene in the book, so it's not like the book is steering clear of sex, so I don't really know why we're left in the dark in regards to how merfolk mate.
They are my thoughts on The Seafarer's Kiss as a story. As a retelling of The Little Mermaid, I'm really disappointed. There are elements of the story that are recognisable; the interest in humans, the desire for legs, the giving up of a voice. But these are small elements, and they don't always appear in this story as they do in the original. And there's a point in the story where The Seafarer's Kiss completely diverges away from The Little Mermaid completely. The heart of the original story is completely missing.
At no point does Ersel step foot on land in this book. She is exiled, away from the glacier, but she doesn't go on land. She doesn't go to be with Ragna. That whole part of the story is left out. There is no human who doesn't love her, who believes they were saved by someone else and loves them instead (because, really, Ersel only helps Ragna, doesn't save her from drowning. She does save someone from being drowned/eaten by orcas, but he's a small character who appears only briefly). She doesn't experience the suffering that comes with the knowledge of giving up absolutely everything for this person, a person who thinks of her only as a little sister. This is not a tragic love story with an even more tragic end. In reality, it's not even really a love story, it's a fantasy that involves romance. Of course, a retelling doesn't have to follow the original story to the T, but you would expect it to have some of the major elements of the story to be present.
The Seafarer's Kiss is at best inspired by The Little Mermaid, but it is not a retelling. It's unrecognisable as a retelling. There's more to The Little Mermaid than a mermaid falling for a human - so much more. Calling this a retelling - which is how it's described - is, in my opinion, misleading.
But as I said, it's not a bad story. In my opinion, it should have been a hell of a lot longer, with a lot more development that filled things out. But the story was definitely intriguing, and I was interested to see where it would go. I loved that it was a bisexual fantasy story - #OwnVoices at that - and how it wove in Norse mythology, with Loki having a pivotal role. I loved how Loki was non-binary, taking both male and female forms, and only ever referred to (except for once, which I think was an editorial error) with the gender neutral pronouns they/them. I loved how this is a feminist story and tackles controlling and policing of women and their "job" in the world - that women are here to have children. There's a lot to love about this book, but it could have been more, too, I feel. But I know a number of people have only positive things to say about this story, so do read other reviews before deciding whether or not to read it.
Thank you to Julia Ember for the review copy.
Published: 4th May 2017
Publisher: Duet Books
Julia Ember's Website
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