Reviewing: The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember

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“You should give me a kiss,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows. “When the bards tell mermaid stories, it’s always supposed to lucky for sailors to kiss them.”

If you’ve read my review of To Kill A Kingdom then you know I love a mermaid despite my own terrible swimming capability and fear of the deep ocean, so when I found out there was a series of books with mermaids, Norse gods and badass lesbians? Of course I was going to read them.

Fun fact, when I went to YALC I only managed to make it to the Sunday, and I was going to buy a copy of this book – like I had actually written it down to buy – but by the time we got there this press had all sold out! So I bought it on Amazon because I really, really needed to read it. 

The Seafarer’s Kiss follows Ersel, a young mermaid living in a community where women of her species are valued above all else based on their fertility. Living in a glacier, they fight to keep their community going under the reign of a tyrannous King. Things are falling apart, her best friend has joined the King’s personal guard, the pressure on her to attend the Grading and seal her own fate, and most dangerous of all – she has found a human stranded after a wreck, and instead of drowning her, she is offering her aid.

All my life, I’d collected contraband from these sunken ships: delicate jewels of pearl and gold, bronze statues of animals that roamed the lands far away, a shield engraved with flying creatures that looked like manta rays coasting through the skies. I hid the illegal trinkets in my room and treasured them.

There are some evident allusions to The Little Mermaid in this work, Ersel explores human wreckages and collects forbidden items from their watery hulls. These secret treasures are her way of exploring a world she cannot reach, is forbidden to even try reaching. The rules are clear, if a human sees you they are to die. Humans are dangerous, murderous animals. Except Ragna. The sole survivor of a shipwreck, Ragna speaks godstongue, and Ersel sees in her a way to find out more about life beyond the glacier’s ice. Their bargain is struck, Ersel will find wood, food, things Ragna needs to go home – and Ragna will offer Ersel a glimpse of freedom even as the Grading approaches. I thought the characters in this book were very well done in that they weren’t these perfect, likeable people all the time. Ersel makes some terrible decisions to get what she wants and escape her fate, and while we don’t see too much of Ragna’s character in this book I’ve started reading the second and let me tell you the girl has some serious trust issues. Ersel’s former best friend Havamal is possibly my least favourite character in this book – including the king – because many, many women have met a Havamal. He’s a nice guy, he’s her friend and he expects her to get over her wish to explore, settle down and mother his children. He later realises he was an ass but still, not a fan of his if I’m honest. Then there’s Loki – the shapeshifting, genderfluid, voice-stealing legend themself. Loki is the iconic trickster archetype, always making deals that work out in their own favour at the expense of everyone else’s, and this book did that justice extremely well. I love Loki as a character – mythology, Marvel, American Gods, give me all the versions of that sneaky little shit.

As my screams died in my throat, the creature spun me around to face them. Their turtle shell had transformed into a billowing cloak of sparkling greens and golds. Caribou antlers covered with strips of fur stuck out on either side of a silver helmet; each antler was tall enough to scrape the ceiling of my little cave. Blue, electric light emanated from their very skin. A sea snake the color of dying coral wound about their waist. I couldn’t decide if I was looking at a man or a woman. Their form was slim and elegant, androgynous…

Ersel makes a deal with Loki, the deal we’ve all heard of, a voice exchanged for legs – but nothing is as you’d expect. The deal and its ramifications are by far my favourite part of this book, it’s so cleverly done and horrifying and honestly once I’d realised what had happened I just kind of stared off into the distance for a while and tried to compute what I had just read. But Loki isn’t unbeatable, and Ersel is determined to fix what she has broken, and this time she will allow no room for error.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, I’d say there were parts of it that felt a little slow to me, and parts I had questions about – how do you season food that’s just floating around? Do you just kind of shake stuff at it and hope it sticks? Do you hold your hands/plate on top of the food to stop it floating away? So silly questions really, mainly about the logistics of living underwater – which is why I haven’t given it a five star rating but make no mistake I would definitely recommend this book! It had some brilliant plot twists that I didn’t expect and opened up a complex and wonderful series of storylines and relationships to continue in the next installment.

Overall rating: 🧜🏻‍♀️🧜🏻‍♀️🧜🏻‍♀️🧜🏻‍♀️ 4 mermaids out of 5

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