Over the past year or so, I’ve been on the hunt for mermaid fiction. I’ve been through a lot of lists, and here's my own list of some favorites so far. There are many, many, MANY books on mermaids out there. The books here are ones that particularly stood out as both enjoyable and memorable for me this year.
Brine and Bone by Kate Stradling (2018): a retelling of The Little Mermaid. Stradling does something I've seen in a few other places by telling the story from the perspective of the other maiden - the human girl who steals the prince's heart. In this version, Magdalena is the prince's childhood friend and the girl he always really loved.
What this book does a little differently is that it treats mermaids as fae. This connection often gets lost in modern fiction, but old stories of mermaids and fairies really do overlap a lot. The "little mermaid" is eerie and alien, and the human characters are rightfully fearful of her. But Magdalena surprisingly finds some common ground with the mermaid. My only complaint is that it's pretty short and and I would have liked to see it go even more in depth.
Mermaid’s Song by Alida van Gores (1989): In an underwater society torn between two races, the mogs and the oppressed merra, a merra-maid named Elan learns to use her magic and competes for the coveted post of guardian to the Sea-Dragons. The competition will decide the fate of the entire ocean.
If you want to read an adult fantasy with a committed treatment of an underwater mermaid world, this is for you. Magic is kept fairly low-key, so the oceanic society feels refreshingly practical, with little details reinforcing that this is not our world - for instance, nobody sleeps in beds, and instead they essentially tie themselves to things. The entire story takes place underwater, which is surprisingly rare for a mermaid book! That said, there were a few uncomfortable themes that kept me from completely enjoying it. For instance, rather than the characters fighting for true equality, the merra are the rightful ruling class and the mogs need to get back to being subservient laborers.
All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (2021): Mirin O’Malley is one of the last descendants of a formerly prosperous family, whose wealth came from regular human sacrifices to the merfolk. When Mirin’s grandmother plots to marry her off to her creepy cousin and start up the sacrifices again, she runs away to search for her missing parents.
Mermaids, rusalki, selkies and other mythical water creatures are more of a backdrop here, ominous figures who haunt Mirin. However, the main plot is interspersed with short, folktale-esque stories that I really enjoyed. I also liked the themes of healing and making amends, and was thoroughly rooting for Mirin by the end.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017): A marine research ship heads out into the ocean to investigate a mysterious disaster and prove whether or not it was caused by mermaids, as rumor has claimed. Turns out the mermaids are all too real - and the research expedition is about to turn into a bloodbath.
Despite an underwhelming ending, this B-movie horror in book form is compulsively readable. I just really loved the plot of scientists discovering mermaids. Grant’s faux-scientific patter about mermaids with mimicking abilities and bioluminescent tentacle-hair feels believable, at least to me as someone who knows nothing about marine biology. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, then this and its prequel, Rolling in the Deep, are both worth a read.
The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre (1997): A dark, dense, intricate historical fantasy where a captured mermaid is brought to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. (The mermaids or sea people here have two leg-like tails.) Naive young noblewoman Marie-Josephe learns to understand the "sea monster's" musical speech, sparking an ethical dilemma and a mission to free the imprisoned sea woman.
The novel is very much about personhood, touching on misogyny, slavery and treatment of people with disabilities, extending through the image of the sea woman whom authorities are ready to discount as a mindless animal that can be killed and eaten. There’s some good “mermaid” worldbuilding sprinkled in, too; the novel is an expansion of McIntyre's short story, “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea.” It can be hard to follow at times; there's a huge cast and everyone in the French court has multiple names and titles.
(This book got an absolute travesty of a film adaptation, and I’m still mad about it. JUSTICE FOR COUNT LUCIEN!)
Emerge by Tobie Easton (2016): Another Little Mermaid retelling - sort of. In this universe, unbeknownst to humans, The Little Mermaid was based on a true story and the heroine’s actions left the undersea world of merfolk in turmoil. In modern times, a mermaid named Lia Nautilus lives in disguise as a human, shielded from the war going on in the deep. When she learns that her human crush is in danger, she turns to forbidden siren magic to save him.
This cheesy, fluffy teen romance, the first of a series, was a surprise favorite for me. I was initially put off by the cartoony worldbuilding and puns (in one early eyerolly moment, a hot guy is called a “total foxfish”). But Easton commits to it and clearly put a lot of thought into a world with shapeshifting mermaids, underwater architecture, and magic. Lia’s plight is compelling, and I found myself enjoying the trilogy even more as it went on.
A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow (2022): Kela, a young girl grieving her mother’s death, finds a mermaid’s comb. The mermaid offers her a wish in exchange for its return, and there’s only one real option for Kela: for her mother to be alive again. But there’s a steep price for wishes, and when the comb is stolen before Kela can return it, things quickly start to go wrong.
This middle-grade novel was a joy to read. Stringfellow blends the Caribbean setting with touches of mermaid stories from around the world (from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Old Man of Cury" and "The Soul Cages"). Mermaids are more of a mystical force here than in most of the other books on this list, but this book is firing on all cylinders with lyrical writing and a compelling, emotional plot.
Some of these books I honestly didn't expect to like so much - I originally ignored Emerge because of the punniness, A Comb of Wishes because it was a kids' book, All the Murmuring Bones because it sounded like the mermaids were barely in it. It was exciting to be able to add them to the list. Looking at this list, I realize that most of them are set primarily on land or have human main characters; this is a common theme. Writing an underwater setting can be a challenge because it rules out so much of society and technology that we take for granted.
I'll continue to read mermaid books as I find them - because I like mermaids, but it's also fun to observe the popular image of these beings from folk and fairy tales. The Little Mermaid is a very popular subject for retellings.
If you have a favorite mermaid book, drop it in the comments!
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.