Having long-wondered what lives beyond the ice shelf, nineteen-year-old mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.
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.
This is an absolutely spectacular book, and absolutely one of my favourites of the year – possibly ever. Seriously, it’s completely brilliant. Smart plotting, ensnaring characters, evocative language… I love it.
Firstly, one of the healthiest relationship representations I’ve ever read, for all that both parties are probably murderers. In fact, there’s lots of interesting consent things going on here generally. The king of the glacier has perverted the system that his mother upheld and turned mermaids into broodmares, terrified more than anything of a low fertility count that will doom them to a life despised. On the other hand, they might have a high fertility count and be trapped in a cage by the merman they’re coerced into committing to until they’re exhausted from producing so many offspring and entirely without hope. So, you know. It’s not great either way.
Ersel has never wanted to play her part in the system. She and her childhood friend Havamal dreamed of leaving the glacier and finding somewhere to live in freedom. But he decides that safety is better than freedom, and joins the King’s guard. Now, she is alone. There are a lot of “I’m not like other girls” moments early on in the book that I squinted at, but stay with it, because it’s challenged in the most excellent way as Ersel finally begins to find her purpose later on. Because it’s often her misunderstanding of other people’s needs and desires – her assumption that she must be alone – that causes her to do the most harm.
It’s that moment, and others, that brought home to me exactly how smart this book is. Not subverting tropes for the sake of it, because it’s a fun thing to do, but taking specific expectations and very thoughtfully bearing down on them until they shatter. Ersel is belittled by the other merpeople, who think that she’s doing all this because of her love for a human. But she asserts again and again that she’s doing it for herself, for the dreams she’s had since she was a child, and I love her for it. Ersel and Ragna exist as independent people, not compromising themselves for each other but making sacrifices for the things they believe in.
This is a genuine twist on the version of The Little Mermaid that we all know, not just a simple retelling. Characters are spliced and reconfigured in startling ways, and nothing is quite as you’d expect. I don’t want to issue spoilers here, because it’s too good to spoil, but trust me, it’s great.
While we’re on the subject of things being not quite as you’d expect, I just have to talk, for a second, about Loki. They are completely marvellous. Contrary and dangerous by nature, but never without cause. They manipulate Ersel and other characters, but not with infinite power. It can be so tricky to have gods in books – often they take over, or get distracting. But Loki’s involvement is completely delicious, and they teach Ersel some valuable lessons that she’s going to need in order to rescue her people from tyranny. And they’re not just here to cause havoc generally – there’s clearly some long game being played here, and I’ll be interested to see what happens here further down the line.
Ersel is bi in the text, but I also read her as some degree of asexual – I’d be interested to hear other people’s perspectives on this. She frequently asserts that she’s not interested in the kinds of relationships expected of her by her people, and though (minor spoiler) she and Ragna do have sex, she doesn’t express specific sexual desire for Ragna – she just enjoys the experience. But the amount of times that she declares her lack of interest in the mating rituals of her people, and her reluctance to agree to commit to Havamal despite her admission that she cares very deeply for him, all feeds into a personal interpretation of the text that says she’s asexual to me.
The Seafarer’s Kiss is clever, passionate and compassionate. The characters make mistakes but are driven to actively repent of them rather than simply being condemned. It’s dark in places, comforting in others, and never stops being interesting.
Also, the beluga whales are super cute.
Plump mermaids are healthy mermaids. Also a lot of body image issues are dealt with. The f/f romance between Ragna, a human, and Ersel, a mermaid. Loki uses gender neutral pronouns.