Esmerine has always longed to be a siren like her sister Dosia, guardians of the waters always dancing upon the knife’s edge of facination with the human world. It is this fascination that makes their magic the more potent, but also the more dangerous, for some sirens become as entranced as their human listeners. When Dosia goes missing, Esmerine braves the bewildering human world to find her sister, despite the homesickness that settles deep in her stomach, despite the pain that prickles up her transformed legs with every step, even despite her memories of a winged boy who used to play games and teach a young mermaid how to read. But Esmerine is a siren like her sister, and that fascination can cut sharp.
I wasn’t too sure what to think when I first saw this book in the computer at work. For months, it was only the title and the cover, no description. It might have been one of the Goodreads giveaways that gave me my first description of it, which left me in mind of The Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney hack-off) meets Gail Carson Levine’s Ever. But, I ordered it in anyway, and when skimming through the first few pages didn’t send off any warning bells, I bought it and took it home.
And I am SO GLAD I DID.
In a way, my initial instinct about the description wasn’t wrong. There are definite echoes here, along with a rather humorous reference to the Disney production that made me giggle in my orange juice, but the story stands on its own two legs (no pun intended). The worldbuilding was gorgeous, detailed without ever falling aside into tedium, and the three separate races are richly and uniquely drawn.
Humans, of course, are largely the same, and certainly not the focus of the story. Most of what we see of them is belligerence and lustfulness, rather typical reactions of the coastal humans in the face of a mermaid. There’s a delicate balance between the landcrawlers and the seadwellers, an understanding of how much fish can be caught of a time and the tribue owed the merfolk and the sirens who keep them from running aground- or will run them into ground if the tribute is skipped. What the typical human understands of mermaids is that they can be kidnapped into marriage if the man steals and hides their belts (a rather ingenious reference to the selkie legends) and that they sink ships seemingly at a whim. The human world isn’t necessarily a safe place for merfolk, especially not a vulnerable young woman on her own.
The merfolk don’t read or write (which, let’s be honest, would be quite a neat trick under water), nor do they have a language of pictures or icons, but they have a rich history of stories and songs that they share through clubs and theatricals. To be a siren is a mark of distinction, of honor, but they also have to be cautious. Sirens are those who already have a fascination with the surface world, a reciprocal tug that makes their magic most effective. A mermaid can give her belt away willingly but the homesickness never goes away, and there aren’t many stories of these brides- willing or not- living for long away from the sea. They exist in a natural form, not just part of the sea but also unfettered by the more human constraints of modesty and clothing, the latter of which could never be but inconvenient under water. Even their diet is different, seaweed and raw fish, a diet that leaves their bodies lean and their stomachs uncomfortable with the idea and weight of cooked food.
And then there are the Fandarsee, the winged race, and when I got to the first description of one of these intriguing creatures, I may or may not have dropped the book in my lap so I could clap with glee (all the windows are open, so I’d feel self-conscious squealing). Some of the humans call them bird-boys, but this is very inaccurate. Rather, they have wings that more resemble a bat’s, attached all along the lengths of their arms and their sides almost to their knees, with piercings in the membranes to allow for side fastenings for clothing. At the tips of these leathery soft wings, the Fandarsee have a thumb and single finger, with the other three bent back in supports for the wings, making maneuvers rather involved. Even their feet are different, curved almost like a bird’s so they can grip things while they fly. They’re intellectual, educated, and as youths often serve as messengers across the great distances.
And though this probably isn’t the most accurate comparison, they rather reminded me of an Amish community complete with rumspringa, only replace the severe simplicity of life with a scientific calling.
Though the impetus of the story is the search for Dosia, this is primarily a love story, but what a love story! As chidren, Esmerine and Alander, a rather grave-minded Fandarsee, played on an island between sea and sky, an island where he taught her to read and write, where they shared stories and games. They haven’t seen each other in four years, after Alander left to attend the Academy and complete his messenger years, but he’s the only one Esmerine can think to look for when she needs help.
Here’s where I really fell in love with this book: after four years, they weren’t immediately the best of friends again. They’d both grown up, grown in different ways, and things were awkward and stilted, full of misunderstandings and frayed nerves. As children, they could play together in a neutral space. As adults, or young adults really, things feel rather more black and white, without the grey areas where unorthodox friendships can flourish. As the story progresses, as they’re pushed together to search for the missing Dosia, they don’t just stumble upon that neutral space again. While they eventually forge a space between them, step by painful step, they earn every moment of it with fear and grief and the despair that comes of the utter certainty that there is no place where a mermaid and a winged man can create a life together. What’s between them is real and natural, full of angst but not of melodrama, and it’s something they will always- always– have to work at. Their relationship is one that will always require hard work to maintain, to keep it strong against all the struggles and obstacles and outside opinions, and I love that, because it’s real.
It isn’t quite a fairy tale, though it feels like one, but it’s a book that leaves you sappily content as you turn the final page, and well worth a read. Between the Sea and Sky, by Jaclyn Dolamore, out in stores now. Check it out!
Until next time~