The first thing I thought when I read the blurb for Jaclyn Dolamore’s Between the Sea and Sky was that proverb, “A fish can love a bird, but where would they build their house?” And I’m willing to bet that at some point, it was on Dolamore’s mind as well.
So my friend Zoraida’s upcoming mermaid book has made me rediscover my love for mermaids, and lately I’m insatiable, but I’m also a bit bored by retellings of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. So I’m happy to say that Between the Sea and Sky is mermaidy and interesting the way Sarah Porter’s Lost Voices was, not boring and predictable. The basic plot: Esmerine has just been inducted, if you will, into the circle of sirens, who are mermaids who are drawn to the surface and who work to sing down ships not because they’re cruel harlots, but because it creates balance–fishermen who over-fish the seas get sung down. Esmerine’s sister, Dosia, is already a siren, but soon after Esmerine becomes one, Dosia disappears, and Esmerine realizes that Dosia must have been kidnapped by a human (because here’s the thing: mermaids can choose to have legs and appear human whenever they feel like it, but every step they take will be painful unless they give up their siren belt to the man they love–but then, also, they’re stuck being human without a method for transformation because the human will hold on to the belt) to be his wife. She decides to venture into the surface world and enlist the help of her childhood friend Alander, who is a member of another hybrid human species, the Fandarsee (human with wings). Adventure and journey tale telling ensue. Alander turns out to have grown into a bookshop salesman who reminds me of the waitstaff at the Grill and the cashiers at Bookman’s–total intellectual snob, probably a hipster, probably a stoner, and when he insults your intelligence it feels at once like a compliment, a challenge, and a jab. And Esmerine is the jugend of the bildungsroman, trying to figure out which world she belongs in.
I hate doing plot summary reviews, because that’s boring and you can find that anywhere. Suffice to say that the story is engaging, fairy tale-like without clearly relying on any specific myth or tale, and believable, though its ending (I’m beginning to think I just hate all endings to all myths/tales/epics, because they’re basically set up to suck) gets a little overly dramatic and ceases to have the character appeal that was so interesting for the rest of the novel. I know I’m kind of a bitch for ragging on romance so much, but I just don’t like it when it’s unwarranted, too easy, or out of nowhere. I would have preferred a less fairy tale ending, or at least a little more time and development to make me care about the love. The climax of this novel comes a little bit out of nowhere.
My favorite thing about this novel is that it makes world building seem like such an elementary, juvenile author thing to do. Because Dolamore goes above and beyond basic world building and politics building and goes anthropological (which is interesting, since Esmerine turns out to be a budding anthropologist–or mer-pologist, I guess). The culture and societies depicted in the book are not only well thought out, they’re well presented, and they make you think about things without forcing you to think about them the way formulaic dystopias tend to do. There are a lot of interesting parallels to current American culture that are presented like updates on old mythology, like the Fandarsee messenger system (Hermes/Mercury, anyone?) which, with its drinking and here’s-where-you-act-immature-while-you-pretend-to-grow-up culture, is much like American college life. Then there’s the whole idea of the belt, which I’d love to spend more time deconstructing. It’s so easy to see it as a chastity belt, and since a siren has to give it up to a human and essentially sacrifice herself to him, that’s part of it. But it’s also more than that, because the belt is imbued with magic that essentially enchants the human and bounds him to her magically at the same time. Very interesting things going on there with control. The class system in the novel has three facets, if you look at mermaids, humans, and Fandarsee, but they’re not exactly like our class system. Dolamore, whether consciously or not, provided Esmerine with a rich world to navigate and discover, and that was my favorite part. It was like a great travel memoir.
The reason the plot doesn’t work for me so much is that it seems to still be in draft form. There are some things presented at the beginning of the novel that don’t follow through, and even its title suggests more of a love story than the bulk of the novel would have you believe. I think it could have gone through a little more editing to decide whether it was a love fairy tale or a bildungsroman with some love thrown in. I vote for the latter, obviously. Its fish-and-bird love story could have been a little more *literary*, a little more nuanced, without sacrificing the plot or YA narrative and voice elements, I think, and I wish it had been worked on a little more.
But plot weaknesses aside, the prose and culture was so well developed that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. This is what good fantasy should be.