The Seafarer’s Kiss
By Julia Ember
Paperback, 212 pages
2017, Duet Books
Ersel feels pressure from her clan about the upcoming Grading ceremony – where young mermaids are tested to see how many fertile eggs they carry, thus determining how desirable they are to potential mates – and does not want the life her king has planned for her. When a ship crashes into the glacier she lives in and Ersel meets the lone survivor, Ragna, she discovers a life so different from her own that she now must make a choice: stay and mate with her childhood friend or face exile from the clan for befriending a human and wanting to explore the world. Determined to get the life she wants, Ersel makes a deal with Loki, but the repercussions are more far reaching than she ever imagined.
I saw this book somewhere online (Instagram? WordPress? Who knows?) and once I heard there was a lesbian mermaid, I was on board.
Ersel and her clan live in a glacier in the north (after some war that no one really remembers where they were outlawed away from the nice, warm tropical water) and enjoys foraging for forbidden human artifacts from the shipwrecks of the Vikings and whalers that end up sinking after crashing into the many glaciers and ice shelves. Sound a little familiar? There are a lot of Ariel-esque characteristics about Ersel’s life, however, she’s still an individual and I enjoyed the new twist on an old favorite.
The familiar references aside (like a trident-wielding king, contact with humans being forbidden, someone ending up with octopus tentacles instead of legs and a different take on voice stealing), Ersel’s people worship Norse gods and Loki plays a fairly large part in this story – a mermaid/Loki crossover story was not something I ever thought I’d encounter, so that was fun. They also have some limited magical powers, like the ability to emit an intense heat from their scales (and possibly healing? That bit was only mentioned once so I’m not sure…), but in order to charge this ability, they must bask in the sunlight each day, because living in a glacier away from daylight saps their energy.
Ersel’s society is very focused on breeding, under the rule of their current king, because they extreme cold of the water they live in makes it harder for their eggs to survive. To find out which females are most fertile (and thus, most desirable) there’s an egg-counting ceremony held each year for girl who’ve reached the age of nineteen. Ersel has always dreamed of leaving the glacier and exploring the world, specifically the human-inhabited one, and she feels an immense pressure from her little society because she doesn’t want to be confined to a cave with her mate, forced to raise brood after brood of eggs, should she prove fertile. I thought this was an interesting aspect (and a socially relevant topic) especially when she is later congratulated by her childhood friend and potential mate (“I’m so proud,” he says) as if that’s something she can actually control. Ersel doesn’t think a merwoman’s value lies in her egg count and this puts her at odds with almost everyone in her community, except her mother, who I was glad to see was supportive of Ersel’s uncommon views.
I do think the relationship between Ersel and Ragna could have used some more development. This is a fairly short book and I wish more time had been spent exploring how these two teens came to feel so strongly for each other. It felt more like an infatuation than a strong relationship. Some of Ersel’s daily adventures felt repetitive and those scenes could have been better spent adding depth to her and Ragna’s unusual friendship turned relationship. Their dialogue could have used some more given and take and more hesitation. That being said, I was totally into merm kisses and I think this book could have had even more smooching.
I do have a few nitpicks (aside from the length and slight lack of character development) regarding Ersel’s world. I’m obviously willing to suspend a good portion of my belief in order to accept this mermaid society the book has going. Food plays a big part in the mermaids’ lives, as they need to gain fat for heat and energy storage, and Ersel spends a lot of time eating or thinking about food. That’s fine, but several times when the food was described “powered” and “dusted” were used in regards to seasonings. All I could think of was Spongebob having a campfire under water. Like, how do you have a powdered ingredient on your shark fin? How would it even stay on? Wouldn’t the constant movement of the water wash off whatever powder didn’t dissolve? I also wondered if Ersel had sharp teeth since the mermaids mostly eat raw fish. I feel like that would have been a nice detail to talk about, something that perhaps scares Ragna at first. If she doesn’t have sharp teeth…well…then that doesn’t make sense to me.
The language was also fairly modern (which I know happens in a lot of books and I’m not saying everyone should write like Shakespeare because I can’t understand that shit) and at times it was bothersome. They clearly don’t live in today’s world and yet the mermaids used phrases like “super quiet” and “we’re screwed” and they felt jarring. Fortunately, it didn’t happen often, but cutting out little phrases like that would have gone a long way to making it feel more authentic in regards to setting.
Overall, this is a really solid YA fantasy, and one of the rare ones I enjoyed! If you’re looking for a quick summer read with plus-size merms who like to kiss ladies, androgynous Norse gods, a little bit of action and lots of tentacles, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.