The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember is a f/f retelling of The Little Mermaid wherein the little mermaid falls in love with a Viking shield maiden.
I bet a whole bunch of you just one-clicked, didn’t you?
It works really amazingly as a feminist retelling of a beloved fairytale, and it’s rich in detail about what mermaid life would be like, but purely as a romance, the heroines spend too much time apart to be satisfying.
Ersel is a mermaid struggling to find out where she fits into the world. There was a war some time ago that Ersel’s people lost, and they were forced to move to a colder climate. They live in an ice palace carved out of a glacier, which is super cool in a “Let it go!” kind of way, but isn’t great for mermaid fertility. Since moving to a harsher climate, Ersel’s people have been struggling to keep their population up–cold water affects the female mermaid’s ability to make eggs. As a result, the mermaids’ value is tied into their ability to produce offspring. When they come of age their fertility is measured in a process called The Grading.
Ersel doesn’t want to be judged based on her ability to produce children. She doesn’t want children at all. She wants adventure, and to better understand the human world (a thing that the Mer King has expressed forbidden). I mean, imagine living in a world where as a woman your value was tied to your sexuality, your fertility, and your ability to fit in with gender norms…oh wait….
One thing that I liked was that Ersel isn’t a fifteen year old in a clamshell bra. Her anatomy makes sense for her climate:
The mage stretched her fingers over my belly. Then she began to massage the fleshy area above the line of my tail scales. Her deft hands needed my doughy stomach and I allowed myself a small grin of satisfaction. Vigdis could say what she liked about my sunbathing habits, but I ate well and my body showed it. Even if they could only find a single follicle, my fat reserves could nourish a hundred developing eggs. I cringed inwardly. I didn’t want children, so why was I proud of that?
Ersel is also described as having rolls of fat, which I think is both logical given she lives in a polar climate, but it also felt super body positive.
Anyway, like I said, Ersel is fascinated by humans, even though her king, King Calder, has ordered all the mer folk to drown any humans they come across (because humans are dangerous and Calder is a dick). When she discovers a Viking shield maiden, Ragna, stranded on their glacier after a shipwreck, her first instinct is observe her, not commit murder.
Ragna was kindapped from her village and is the only survivor of the shipwreck that killed her abductors. Stuck on the glacier with no food or means of escape, it appears she’s doomed as well.
Ragna and Ersel eventually make contact and we just accept that they can speak the same language. Ersel helps find food and wood for Ragna, so she can sustain herself and repair a small boat to escape in. During their time together their friendship turns into attraction:
“Mermaids are said to be the most beautiful creatures in Midgard.” [Ragna] shrugged. “But maybe the sailors who find them were just lucky to begin with.”
“Are said?” I raised my own eyebrow in an attempt at disdain.
“Are.” Ragna said. She leaned toward me, and my heart beat faster. It was just going to be a quick kiss, why was I getting so worked up? “And I’m going to need a lot of luck.”
She brushed her silken lips across mine. The bitter smell of the sea clung to her now, mixed with the earthen sweetness that was her own. The sensation of her warmth shot down my back. She moved to pull away, but I wrapped my hands around her and crushed her lips to mine. The taste of her was like an elixir of salt and courage and freedom. I couldn’t get enough. Some animal part of my brain insisted that I needed more.
Ersel wants to be with Ragna, but she’s, you know, aquatic. She’s also found to be one of the most fertile mermaids in recent memory, so there’s pressure for her to find a mate and start making babies.
In order to escape the life she doesn’t want–one where she’s valued purely for her egg-count–Ersel makes a deal with the god Loki to be with Ragna.
It’s Loki, though, so that doesn’t go as planned.
Okay, that’s enough plot summary. Seafarer’s Kiss focuses more on Ersel’s journey than it does on the romance between Ragna and Ersel, so people looking at this purely as a romance novel might be disappointed. It’s such a good book, though, that I didn’t mind.
Like any fairytale, Ersel must overcome a series of obstacles to realize her true self and to find her happiness, and that path isn’t easy. These are not Disney mermaids. King Calder is a terrifying despot. Ersel’s male friend looks at her differently once he finds out she’s fertile, and his gaze is uncomfortable. It’s meant to be. Original fairytales were dark, and this book is no exception. There’s no singing crab to lighten the mood.
I am 100% down for that, though. I was more than willing to spend a lot of time underwater in Ersel’s world because it was so fascinating. There’s a lot of amazing world-building in this book and it’s a good blend of logic and fantasy.
I also loved the author’s depiction of Loki as an ethereal, androgynous god who is alternately beautiful and terrifying.
A few warnings: there is a scene where Ragna and Ersel get angry and hit each other. I know that bothered some readers. Also, Ragna is a badass Viking maiden who is hell bent for revenge against the people who kidnapped her. Again, this is a true fairytale, with an element of darkness to it.
If I were to read Seafarer’s Kiss purely as a romance novel, I would be disappointed at how relatively little time the two heroines spend together. As a fairytale retelling with romantic elements, it was delightful.
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