“But that was before I’d met a human: before I’d seen the depth, intelligence, even empathy, in Ragna’s eyes; before I knew that humans spoke the godstongue and smiled like starfish.”
Ersel’s tribe of merpeople has been exiled to the coldest habitable water remaining, far north, and every year, their population dwindles as mermaids’ eggs are frozen in their wombs, doomed to infertility. In an act of desperation, the king has enforced a law that, in their nineteenth year, each mermaid must undergo a test of fertility – and the female with the highest likelihood of successful brooding becomes a prized possession, coveted by all of the mermen. To be fertile, and wanted, is the greatest pride any mermaid in their tribe can hold.
It isn’t that simple for Ersel, who wants so much more than her little glacier life can give her. She wants more than just being locked away, doomed to a life of motherhood and nothing more; she wants to explore the world, see the sights, get to know the humans that fascinate her so. When she meets Ragna, a beautiful human woman, Ersel decides she is willing to risk everything to accompany her new friend home, but the price may be more than Ersel ever prepared to pay.
First of all, we’ve got a chubby, bisexual cross between the little mermaid and Ursula, who falls in love with a badass lesbian viking, and has to face down the tricks and scheming of a gender-queer Loki (proper “they” pronouns and all). Julia Ember can just keep on keepin’ on with this awesomeness, because I lived for the rep and diversity in this book!
The plot itself was never anything particularly mind-blowing, nor were the world-building or character development. I wished there was more back story to go off of in a few spots, too (such as in the case of Ersel’s relationship with Havamal, which sometimes felt like it was more of a prop than a legitimate plot point). Ersel is a really delightful character, albeit simple. She felt very one-dimensional to me at times. She’s a genuinely good character who wants to do the right thing and take care of the people she cares for. Her “goodness” was even frustrating at times, because she seemed to view things in such a black-and-white manner that I had to roll my eyes at a few of the remarks she made and assumptions she jumped to.
I also was mildly annoyed with her behavior towards Loki; she was fully aware that Loki is the god of tricks and lies, yet she was somehow shocked and dismayed at Loki’s trickery? Even when Loki eventually did good things for her (that I won’t divulge, due to spoilers and all that), she refused to give the god any credit, and I kept thinking, “Is spitting in the face of a god really a smart move?” and kind of expecting her to get the crap slapped out of her for doing it. I dunno, suspension of disbelief and all that.
Ragna is a pretty awesome character, or so we’re told, but again, there just wasn’t a ton of character development to prove it. We really don’t see a lot of Ragna, and when she is “on screen”, so to speak, we’re mostly just stuck listening to Ersel think to herself about how much she likes her, or how intrigued she is. This was the biggest point in the book that I would use as an example for why I would say that this book would have benefited tremendously from a lot less internal monologue, and a lot more actions and external dialogue.
As far as other characters go, they were all pretty “meh”. Honestly, I think my favorite side characters were the beluga whales, who, coincidentally, received more development and attention than any other side characters in the book, I think (no, I’m not joking, and I’m also not really complaining, because come on, BELUGA WHALES? They’re adorable!).
Despite the fact that it may sound like I have a bunch of complaints about this book, they’re all honestly fairly minor. All in all, I really did enjoy this story a lot. I went into it expecting some LGBT retelling of the Disney version of the story, but instead was greeted with something that was much more true to the original Anderson tale, with a healthy dose of Nordic mythology that was so enjoyable. I always love reading about mythology, and the Norse gods in particular seem to be neglected in most of the fiction that I read, so that was refreshing! It was an easy, short read (I finished it in a day), and left me with that warm, fuzzy feeling of a fully satisfying ending.
The single biggest “pro” for this book, for me, wasn’t even the bi rep (though that was close!)… it was the fact that this book heartily addressed the outdated societal expectations of women to become mothers at all costs. I loved the fact that Julia was willing to tackle that topic head-on by breaking it down to its smallest pieces: some women do not want to be mothers, and that does not make them broken, or incomplete, or “less than”. It simply means that their wants are different from what society primarily expects of them, and that is more than okay. Ersel doesn’t want to be shoved in a hole to spend the rest of her life breeding, and says more than once that she may never want any children at all. She is judged and chastised for her wishes, and even faces the very real fear that she may be forced into motherhood against her will. I saw so many of my dearest friends in Ersel’s thoughts on the matter, and my heart ached for any woman who has suffered through similar problems, so I would call this a potential trigger warning for anyone who’s been through that pain.
At the end of the day, I would be more than willing to read future endeavors from Julia. I think once she nails down the whole character development aspect a little further, she’s going to knock my socks off. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good LGBTQ+ story or retelling, or is just looking for a nice, heartwarming story to read.
Thank you so much to Julia’s publicist for sending me a free ARC in exchange for an honest review!