In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian, Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions; by night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.
One day, Clara discovers shimmering scales just beneath her sister’s skin: Maren is becoming a mermaid and must be taken to the sea or she will die. So Clara, O’Neill, and the mermaid-girl set out for the shore. But the trio encounters trouble around every bend. Ensnared by an evil troupe of traveling performers, Clara and O’Neill must find a way to save themselves and the ever-weakening Maren.
And always in the back of her mind, Clara wonders, if my sister is a mermaid, then what am I?
Mermaids – in recent years, they’ve been the subject of numerous novels and retellings, chiefly from the YA camp. After all, who can resist exploring a character who is part-human and part-fish? That’s just a cool idea right from the start!
Being a mermaid fan myself (thank you Disney’s The Little Mermaid!), I was on the lookout for some mermaid-themed books that weren’t the typical candy floss-esque teen stories. Hence, I stumbled upon this gem, which is Carrie Anne Noble’s debut novel. If this is any indication of Ms. Noble’s writing future, then I’d say it’s an extraordinarily bright one indeed! (FYI: This novel is a stand-alone, so it is not part of a series, and it is not a retelling of The Little Mermaid, just in case you were curious.)
In short, I loved everything about this novel, and I really do mean everything. For starters, the writing is exquisite as it’s descriptive without becoming purple prose or adjective overkill. Sometimes books can be so sparse with their environmental or sensory details that I feel like all of the action and characters exist in a black box. On the other hand, some books describe too much and sound like they’re trying to impress readers with how much detail they can provide. But The Mermaid’s Sister rests elegantly in the middle: you can clearly visualize the people and places in the story as well as important sensory details without it being too little or too much. I really appreciate this fine hand as it brings character to the novel through solid descriptive writing without detracting from the story itself by offering up too many details.
In the same way, we’re relayed information we need to know through stories told inside of the main story. Rather than subject readers to regularly timed infodumps, this novel allows different characters to tell stories, akin to folktales, that tell us what we need to know. While some of these tales take up the good part of a given chapter, they don’t happen in every chapter and work not only to fill in critical details but also act to establish the story’s tone. This is not a modern day story, so the characters’ way of life is rustic and pastoral; thus, their speech, manners, and oral tradition hearken back to this older time in a way that sounds antiquated without coming across as off-putting to modern readers.
Character-wise, the story focuses on two sisters, Clara (who serves as the story’s narrator) and Maren. Maren is undergoing a radical change as she slowly transforms into a mermaid. Her plight is elegantly handled with a great amount of gentle tension, like a piano string that’s pulled taunt and is just waiting to be struck. First, Maren has to contend with not allowing members of the outside world to see her. Then she starts to lose her vestiges of humanity. Finally in time, she can no longer exist outside of the ocean, so Clara and O’Neill, a childhood friend and love interest of Maren’s, decide to make the dangerous, long journey to the sea. Clara struggles greatly with her sister’s transformation, navigating between determination to find a cure and return Maren to her human state, to desperation to get Maren to the ocean though this means she will never see her beloved sister again.
Likewise, Clara finds herself attracted to O’Neill yet knows it would be unwise to toy with his affections as he clearly loves her sister. In the same way, Clara catches herself being oddly jealous at her sister as Maren possesses a blatant uniqueness and Clara feels rather ordinary and, hence, unable to help much. Yet never does Clara constantly wallow in her misery and is a plucky heroine who allows her love for her sister and resolve to do what’s right trump any selfish notions. But it’s these moments of self-centered introspection countered with a strong moral resolve and unconditional love that make Clara human rather than a despicable character. These various emotional conflicts also add another layer of good drama and tension to the story as the reader is constantly guessing how Clara will respond to the various situations and dilemmas she faces.
The other characters here are also nicely fleshed out and feel like they could honestly be real people. O’Neill is a smart, noble, playful male lead who does his best to do what’s right and acts honorably. Auntie, Clara and Maren’s adoptive mother, is a kind, gentle, old soul who loves both of her daughters without favoritism and is willing to exhaust her resources in order to save Maren. Auntie gets a love interest as well, who is a perfect complement to her, and the cast of villainous characters was well played out and provided a few surprises along the way that are worth not being spoiled for.
Content: I was highly impressed by this novel, which is a clean, mildly-PG read; so it’s a great pick for teens and older middle grade readers, say ages 10 and up (as younger readers might find the story too slow for their tastes).
Language – None.
Violence – Essentially none. While there are scenes of peril, especially as Maren’s condition deteriorates, there is no violence save for a scene where an injured animal is killed (off-screen) by one of the villains and when villain characters get their just desserts (though neither instance is graphic or gory).
Sexual Content – None. One character, Jasper, is a rakish ladies’ man who tries to come on to Clara, but she refuses him and often times O’Neill steps in to defend her honor (though it’s worth noting Jasper never physically tries to force himself on Clara). Also, when Maren enters her mermaid state, she no longer has the need for clothes; while she isn’t completely naked, her upper body is made general reference to on a few occasions (though Clara does her best to maintain her sister’s dignity and modesty). Lastly, in case some readers might wonder if anything happens between O’Neill and either one of the sisters, I can say (without revealing spoilers) that O’Neill becomes a married man at the end, so no impropriety ever occurs.
Overall, The Mermaid’s Sister is a delightful story that opens up like a beautiful blossom, one petal at a time. I finished this in a day because I just had to know how everything turned out. While I won’t reveal spoilers, I will say that this does have a happy ending and is certainly worth looking into if you’re searching for mermaid-based stories that are more than just fluffy teen triangle reads. I absolutely loved this novel and it definitely deserves a spot on my Favorite Reads list. It’s a breath of fresh air and a true gem…or make that a splash of salt water and a true pearl (just in case you’re a mermaid)! 🙂