I probably should have reread ElCicco’s review before I started this novel since I unfortunately interpreted the word “reimagining” loosely, and was a bit disappointed with some of the topics the novel didn’t explore. However, if I had read the review again, I would have known that this is a fairly loyal retelling as far as the scope of the story goes. Basically, O’Neill did such a great job of building the kingdom under the sea that I wanted to spend more time there, get deeply involved in undersea politics and its factions, and see the Little Mermaid combine forces with the Sea Witch, Ceto, rather than still requesting to give up her legs and woo a man. I guess that’s the difference between using an original plot as a frame, like Cinder, and a retelling. Since I wanted all these other things outside the normal story to happen, I didn’t enjoy or appreciate this decidedly feminist take on The Little Mermaid as much as I would have with the proper expectations.
Gaia is the youngest and prettiest of the Sea King’s six daughters, and the novel begins on her 15th birthday. On Gaia’s first birthday, her mother was captured (and presumably killed) by humans, leading to a dark cloud of silence surrounding her mother, to the point that Gaia is called Muirgen since Gaia is the name her mother chose. While traditional law dictates that mermaids must wait till they are 20 to marry, she is already betrothed to her father’s best general with the wedding set for her 16th birthday. Her father was already old enough to be her mother’s grandfather, and Gaia dreads the day she will be married to a man her father’s age. One tradition that her father does not interfere with is the trip to the surface on a mer-person’s 15th birthday to observe what is above. Gaia ends up spending her day watching a group of humans celebrating Oliver’s 21st birthday until a storm comes. The women drown, while the men are claimed by the Rusalkas, the vengeful spirits of human women wronged by men and now under the shelter of Ceto, but Gaia interferes to save Oliver.
Gaia lives in a very patriarchal society; women are all held to one beauty standard (thin and pretty), the Sea King awards his daughters as prices, and people that don’t fit are exiled. In this society, the best a woman can hope for is an advantageous marriage, and Zale’s choosing of Gaia has caused problems between her and her sister, Cosima, even though Zale is a horrible and abusive man. Given the type of society Gaia was raised in, it is understandable that she keeps thinking about Oliver, and that she views another man as her only chance of escape – a nicer man, but still a man. Her society has not even allowed her to imagine or dream of another route for women beyond decoration on a man’s arm. As a result, even though she is surprised by her interactions with Ceto when she finally visits the Sea Witch to make a deal, that brief glimpse of an unconventional woman is not enough to make her realize there may be another way. Gaia sticks with her plan to give up her tail for legs, even though each step will be like walking on shattered glass, and Ceto demands her voice as payment. Why would Gaia need her voice after all, when all that matters to men is her beauty?
I was surprised to realize that while the kingdom under the sea has a timeless fairy tale setting, the surface world is very much within a modern context (it wasn’t a surprise at this point since it already became apparent during the birthday party). Oliver and his friends discover her, and she becomes a guest at Oliver and his mother’s home. There is a lot of tension in Oliver’s house – Oliver is still grieving his friends lost during the storm, he resents his mother for how she treated his father, and Oliver enjoys a life of privilege but refuses to involve himself in the family business, despite her entreaties. Oliver finds a sympathetic ear in Gaia, or Grace as he names her, but Gaia slowly realizes that maybe simply agreeing with a man and going along with everything with no resistance is not the best way to win him as a partner. Of course, even if she had her voice, it is questionable whether she could get beyond her upbringing where women are to be seen and not heard. Oliver himself is the definition of the average guy, not actively malicious but also not that considerate.
Gaia herself is sympathetic, but some of her mistakes make her hard to like. It is not her fault that she was raised in a patriarchal society, and she is still very young, but she makes choices that negatively affect other women, which complicated my feelings towards. The novel does a great job of showing the differences between the overt sexism of Gaia’s home and the subtle sexism of the modern human world. Overall, O’Neill provided great depth to the story and rationalized rather well why a woman would give up everything for a man she didn’t know, but I definitely wasn’t this novel’s intended audience. I think this would be an exceptional and potentially mind altering read for a teen girl/young woman, but since I have already understood the messages, I would have liked a novel where the little mermaid is a freedom fighter and the sea witch’s second in command, only going above the surface for some political reason. Basically, rather than following the little mermaid on her feminist discovery and awakening (which is a good story to tell), I wanted to follow the adventures of an already woke mermaid.
The cover is gorgeous, though, and I particularly appreciated this quote:
“… I’ve found that weak men are often attracted to strong women. In the beginning, anyway. In time they come to resent that same strength they professed to love. They try to put you back in your place.”