Shira Glassman reviews Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver

First of all, do I really need to say anything other than “sweet romance novella between a witch and a mermaid” in the first place? But I have lots more to say about Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver, which rocketed to the top of my f/f fantasy recs list as soon as I read it last month.

“If you ever fear the water again, remember that I’m in it.” That was the point where I teared up and started flailing on Twitter.

It’s easy to reel me in with a fairy-tale about healing from trauma, but this one was exceptionally well done with prose that’s both well-crafted and easy to swallow, like the stew our witchy heroine leaves brewing for herself every night via the magical equivalent of a crockpot (which is just “hey, pot of stew, be warm when I get back to the dock, mmkay?”)

Sylver creates what I can only describe as a “beautiful dystopian” — this is a world where what’s gone horribly wrong is that humans, in some undescribed catastrophe, managed to destroy the moon. In its place, a lonely witch named Riven paddles out in her boat every night to call the tides.

The setup may be fanciful, but her sorrow and loneliness as she grieves for the rest of her family, lost to the sea, is familiar and real and stripped raw of any of the distance one might suppose the fantasy elements might grant. She’s also longing for a different kind of life, one she hasn’t even really identified yet at the beginning but comes to understand, in which she’s still serving others but in a different capacity.

Enter a mer, unidentified in name or gender at first, but who turns out to be female. Sylver does a good job of making mer culture seem distinctly different from humans; when Riven tries to explain that the sounds of her name doesn’t mean anything, the mer reminds her “they mean you.”

The text heavily suggests that Riven is neurodivergent, with several references to other people reacting badly to her conversation, or to her frustration with hidden rules about what questions you’re allowed to ask. In contrast, the mer, who does wind up with a human translation of her mer name over the course of the story, accepts and likes Riven’s way of thinking and speaking. Also, Riven is fat, which you can see on the cover, and this is presented as completely neutral and that kind of thing is important.

Much of what makes this story so special is hard to explain without spoilers, but we are given progressively more and more beautiful reveals to unwrap until I wept at the quote with which I began this review.

At ten thousand words, it’s possible to read it in one sitting, yet it’s also a complete and satisfying happily-ever-after.

This a good read for people who are easily freaked out by too much worldbuilding. This is one of the easiest to parse fantasy setups I have ever seen. It manages to be fresh and creative and magical while not confusing me at all. I know this sounds weird for a fellow fantasy author to say, but then again, my series is basically “what if all the things I like lived in a palace in my childhood city.” Here’s a thread about what I’m talking about. But anyway, RoAnna Sylver gets it so right, maybe partially because in the course of explaining themselves to each other, the witch and the mermaid are also letting us-the-audience in slowly at a reasonable pace.

This is also a recommended read for those looking for f/f romance that isn’t sexually explicit. (In fact, heatwise it’s probably at the level of a Disney princess movie, although I’m not sure I can say the same about some of the implied offscreen violence in the book’s past.)

Here’s a Gumroad link if you’d prefer pdf to Kindle.

Danika reviews The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang

This is a fascinating novella. It’s a dark, reversed retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from the point of view of a human scientist who acts in an anthropological capacity studying the atargati (definitely not “mermaids”). If “dark queer retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid'” didn’t already hook you, I don’t really know what else to say.

I really liked the author chose to not only have the atargati not have gender, but to also have a nonbinary human character (who uses hir/zie prounouns), so that it wasn’t presented as an alien concept:

We did try to describe binary genders to [the atargati] once. Of course Dr. Hansen jumped in and tried to expand the conversation to sex versus gender, and to explain intersex and genderqueer people, and I tried to stop hir because I thought that would be too confusing, but it turned out that part made more sense to them than what we tried to tell them about men and women.

This also had personal appeal to me because the main character falls in love with one of the atargati (of course), and really grapples with what this means for her identity as a lesbian, especially when she had to fight so hard to claim that space in the first place:

I lost my whole identity. I had to rebuild myself brick by brick and seal a shield around myself with the label “lesbian.” I’m attracted to women. I was born that way. I’ve always been that way. If that’s not true, then my whole life, every relationship, every broken tie—it was all a lie. …

I’ve never been attracted to a human man, and still can’t conceive of such a thing. But maybe… maybe I can’t be slotted into a box either. Maybe I don’t have a definition

Have I mentioned that this is a dark retelling? And that it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, and not the Disney version? I probably should have paid more attention to that, because I was disappointed by the ending. I was looking for a little more from the story: I think I was so intrigued by the world that I wanted to spend more time with it, even outside of this specific story. I wanted to know what happened after the story was over. I wanted to learn more about the atargati.

Still, this science fiction, queer, dark take on “The Little Mermaid” is compelling and memorable. You can easily finish it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after that.

Shira Glassman reviews Eelgrass by Tori Curtis

Eelgrass by Tori Curtis is an intimidating book to review because reading it was such a powerful experience that I’m scared of failing to do it justice. It mirrors its protagonist’s span of two worlds — she’s a selkie so both the sea and the shore communities are home — inasmuch as it comfortably straddles Irish historical fantasy and literary fiction (as well as lesfic!) It’s firmly woman-centered; most of the characters are women whose motivation is keeping other women safe.

This is the kind of book where a selkie asks a siren the What are we relationship question. I will reproduce the following deliciously incongruous quote here: “Around here, people decide they want to get to know each other and they — they court. And if that goes well, they marry. Are we courting?” This juxtaposition of conservative, period-piece village daintiness with a literal seal-woman and a bloodthirsty mermaid, I mean, freaking sign me up and sell me the Extras package.

The core of the story is Efa’s drive to rescue her best friend and fellow selkie Bettan from the fate every selkie woman knows about from birth–if a human man gets a hold of your sealskin, you become bound to him. When we finally get to see this up close, it’s a sort of emotional slavery that’s as subtle as feathers but harsh and binding below the surface.

Bettan and Efa’s relationship is the foundation of the book’s story, and I’m very drawn to stories of women as rescuers, especially of each other. I also really like how intense but platonic they were together, because it reaffirms that f/f and f-f friendship stories can support and coexist each other rather than threatening each other. Bettan and Efa literally promise to be best friends forever, which felt good to read.

I loved all the care and thought Curtis put into the details of her worldbuilding. For example, the selkie civilization on human land is more suited to their biology than human villages would be — the houses are very simple, shops are run out of the houses instead of being in separate buildings, etc. In the nearby human village, selkies are accepted as real–they’re othered and exoticized a little, but they’re a familiar presence. In contrast, sirens (called “fishwives” by the humans) are treated as more fantastical. As Efa says:

“I didn’t know fishwives were real,” she said, barely able to form the words over her blush. People told stories about them, but then, people told stories about kings, too. She’d never known anyone who met one.

As for Ninka the Siren/Fishwife herself, here she is in one quote: “Whatever I want. I go exploring, and fish, and bother sailors and seduce young women on the seashore.” Sounds like a nice life! I’d ask where I can sign up, except violins are easily waterlogged.

Ninka is described as “so beautiful Efa didn’t know how she’d ever thought she’d want boys.” Speaking of which, I loved the worldbuilding’s approach to queerness. For example, here’s a conversation between Efa and a male siren:

“I was with a human once. It didn’t end well.”

“With,” she repeated.

“A blacksmith,” he said.

Efa scrunched up her nose. “That’s as human as you can get without being a miner,” she said. And then frowned. “Are all sirens – do men always fall in love with other men?”

“A lot of us do,” he said, “but she was a woman.”

I like the creative decision to have selkie culture and siren culture show different approaches to male-male and female-female love—Efa’s community never presented it as an option, but it’s totally commonplace in Ninka’s. I don’t think I’ve run into this before, this contrast between two different fantasy creature communities. Usually it’s all “how does this group differ from humans.

The entire book draws heavily on symbolism that can easily parallel real-world sexual assault, domestic violence, or bisexual women coerced into permanent relationships with allo cis hetero men rather than pursuing happiness with any gender wherever life leads them (which, yes, may happen to be a man like that but that’s different from ending up with one through social pressure.)

The most poignant and pithy representation of these connections is when Bettan asks Efa, “What if he turned me human?” What if he changed me irrevocably? What if I’ve lost something that made me fundamentally me? This works for all of these real-world parallels. Another quote: “You think people can’t do those kinds of things to you, but obviously they can.” And then, when Efa says, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re free now.” I’m probably making this sound heavy-handed, but it’s really not. It’s exquisite.

After all–

“But no one will take this seriously. It happens all the time.”

“I don’t see why we don’t stop it,” she said. . . . There were selkies who came home ten years, twenty years later, their sealskin won back, and never spoke of what had happened while it was kept from them. There were mothers so determined not to be trapped that they abandoned their sons and daughters. Efa knew people, a dozen of them at least, who stayed away from their human forms forever out of fear that their sealskin might be taken again. She couldn’t imagine losing one world to save the other, but they did it, and trembled at the thought of shedding their sealskins.

There may be some awkward and unintentional racial coding going on in the selkies having slightly darker skin than the human characters–between that and the “lol you’re sexy but exotic and othered” treatment from the human fishermen, plus all the themes of escaping coercion, one could see symbolism for women of color. However, as a fairly light-skinned white Jew, I’m still darker than the white Irish people in my life, so the selkies could still be white if thinking of them any other way gets awkward. A WoC will be better able to speak to this than I can.

Speaking of marginalization, though, the book had a neat moment where Efa forgets about the existence of Deaf people and Ninka (the siren) corrects her. Again, here for a siren “calling in” a selkie as if they were both, like, activist friends of mine or something.

I’m not sure if I was reading an earlier draft because I was given a review copy as a Lesbrary reviewer, but halfway through the book random hyphens started appearing in words that weren’t at the end of lines on the mobile version. It happened at least three or four times and I just wanted to give a heads up that other than this, the book was impeccably edited and didn’t have any other artifacts of Indie Life. Also, I’m not a fan of the cover and feel that it gives the wrong impression of the contents; it looks too modern to me and almost looks like a beachy wedding shoot. Would love to see it with the kind of sweeping fantasy art the story cries out for.

The ending is a little bit unresolved as far as relationships go – there’s an unambiguous f/f ending for Efa that seems like it could lead to future complications (but I’m pretty sure there’s a sequel in the works) plus a m/f resolution for other characters that seemed like a giant maybe. But life itself is unresolved and in continual flow, so I don’t have a problem with this. The plot and adventure part of the story are definitely resolved and complete, and overall this was a riveting read that I’m awarding five stars for quality and being thoroughly absorbing.

Trigger warning for on-the-page controlling husband behavior and “underwater fantasy violence”, as the MPAA might phrase it. These are not Lisa Frank mermaids.

Also, this book will make you thoroughly hungry for fish (if you eat fish.)

Danika reviews Ice Massacre by Tiana Warner


Why did no one tell me about this book earlier?? Honestly, this should be much more well known. Ice Massacre is about Meela, and 18-year-old girl who has been trained to fight killer mermaids. She’s needed to defend her island, but she has qualms about being sent out to massacre the “sea demons”: she befriended one as a kid.

I was completely sucked in by this book. I can’t help but make Hunger Games comparisons: this is a story about teenagers at war, and it has some brutal violence. Each girl reacts to being in a war situation differently, some numbing themselves with drugs and others becoming vicious and unfeeling. Meela struggles to steel herself to the killing of mermaids–creatures who look eerily human–and it’s made worse by the fear that the next one she kills will be her childhood best friend.

In addition to the war with the mermaids, the girls turn on each other on the ship, splintering their ranks. The tension is high, and I ended up reading this book in a day, which is not a common occurrence for me.

The queer content of this book is understated, and it could easily be missed by someone who wasn’t looking for it, but it’s impossible to misinterpret by the end. If you’re someone who wants to get queer books in the hands of people who might not seek them out–or who aren’t able to openly read queer lit–this would make a great choice.

Ice Massacre also has a mostly indigenous cast of characters, but they are a fictional indigenous group. In the book, Eriana Kwai island seems to be an independent indigenous nation between BC and Alaska. The language is loosely based on Haida. I can’t speak to this representation, especially because the author did invent an indigenous group. I would be very interested to read a review from an indigenous reader, especially someone from the Pacific Northwest Coast.

With that caveat, I highly recommend Ice Massacre, as long as you can stomach some violence. Killer mermaids! It’s like Fox and the Hound, but with mermaids and lesbians! This deserves a much more prominent spot in queer YA and queer SFF.