Yeah, anyone know if there’s an “official” term for a group of mermaids? There’s a glory (or blessing) of unicorns, a parliament of owls, a murder of crows… I tried Google-ing it, but all I found were guesses and hearsay, and one person wondering why the heck it even matters. Way to be a spoilsport, that person.
Anyhoo, I’ve been on a serious mermaid kick lately, and it’s all Sarah Porter’s fault. Many months ago, while browsing in a Barnes & Noble, I saw this:
The jacket summary sounded very promising, despite a mention of Love Interest Drama (which I won’t include b/c spoilers)…
. . . .
Wait, conclusion? Trilogy? To the library!
* * * TRIGGER WARNING: the Lost Voices series deals with child abuse, rape, and other very triggering subjects. There are also a few gory scenes (not directly related to those topics), particularly in Waking Storms and The Twice Lost. More graphic than anything I remember from The Hunger Games. Like, if you’ve seen the Final Destination movies? Kind of like that. * * *
One library e-book download later, I was in Sarah Porter’s world — our world, but with mermaids having been around for thousands of years, and society (at least the U.S.) just beginning to find out. We start in a small town on the west coast of Alaska, where fourteen-year-old Luce Korchak is sinking deeper and deeper into depression. It’s been a year since her father was lost at sea and her uncle stopped holding back his alcohol-enhanced aggression. And then one night he breaks the last straw.
And that’s when something weird happens.
If I wanted to over-simplify what Lost Voices is, I’d say it’s a Mermaid Peter Pan. It’s about tribes of Lost Girls who escape cruel humanity not by teleporting to a dream world, but by transforming into something magical and powerful and deadly. Something that never has to grow up. When they sink ships, though, it’s not just a game of kids vs. pirates; it’s revenge and catharsis.
But there’s plenty more to Lost Voices than that. Porter draws from Greek mythology, as well as Slavic and Inuit, for inspiration. The East European rusalki, for instance, are said to be the spirits of young women who died young from persecution or heartache, or who jumped into the river to escape marriage, either way trading the human world for something wilder and more free. You’ll find traces of the Sedna legend, too — the story of the Inuit sea goddess whose transformation also stemmed from abuse and betrayal.*
THINGS I LOVED
- Story and Characters
One of the best things a well-written story can do is make me feel like the characters are my friends even though no one ever speaks directly to me. Porter makes me care about everything that happens to these girls and the humans who try to understand them. As I said in my 2014 favorites roundup, the teenagers feel very believable, talking and thinking like actual 21st-century adolescents (including the occasional swear word).
And like the people, the main conflict is realistically complex; it’s not a simple good vs. evil plot, or totally lovable protagonist vs. totally despicable antagonists. Save for one person – and even that person’s motives are adequately explained – there are no through-and-through, unredeemable villains. You understand why the mermaids want to drown as many humans as they can, and you understand the humans who want to destroy what they see as vicious monsters. And there are plenty of people in between these extremes.
Aaand, there’s no love interest in the first book. The mermaids do talk about guys, but what matters more are their relationships with each other. Even when Porter introduces a love interest in Book 2, it still feels like Luce’s friendships with her tribe members and other mermaids are equally – if not more – important. And, on the other hand, the guy does fit into the story in ways beyond the forbidden love angle.
- Sound and Vision
Another way Porter convinces me to believe in her world is through her use of imagery. She is awesome at describing the ocean both from a human’s and from a mermaid’s point of view. At night, the “golden and wide-eyed” moon “gleamed like floating coins all over the tops of the waves.” By day, in “the delirium of sun,” the undersea “was stained green and golden, laced with writhing threads of light,” and down there one could watch “the fragile, milky, long-legged crabs whose bodies were translucent and whose tapering feet looked almost like pink glass. There were tiny drifting medusas, too, with crystalline gelatinous frills around cobalt blue hearts”
Porter also describes sounds with this intense poetic clarity. The cave where Luce and her tribe live in Lost Voices, “with its glowing crystals like half-obliterated stars” (couldn’t resist one more visual), had a “constant resonance as the waves roared outside. Like living in the hollow of a violin, sustained in one endless note…” Music plays a huge role in the series, so it makes sense that Porter would try to make us hear every note as if we were there. Even as if we were singing the songs ourselves.
THINGS I DIDN’T LOVE
- Strange Conversations
While most of the characters are written very believably, there are these two guys in Waking Storms who seem really cartoonish as antagonists – one of them basically a Smith clone from The Matrix, the other a giggling sidekick who occasionally says more than he should. There are several scenes in which the Smith clone is interrogating a fifteen-year-old boy with all the over-the-top sneering and posturing of the original Agent Smith. It almost turned me off from the book, but the overall story was luckily compelling enough to keep me going.
Then there’s the bit where two teens are discussing a girl (now a mermaid) who was sexually assaulted, and though both teens seem appropriately disturbed by the details, one of them suddenly starts putting the girl down because, as a mermaid, she no longer has the equipment to make a guy happy ifyaknowwhatImean. I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY? I know there are people in real life who would talk like that, but it just doesn’t seem like what this particular character would say at that moment.
- Too Much Story, Too Little Explanation
There’s a point in Waking Storms where it starts to feel cluttered. I won’t give much detail so’s not to spoil anything, but there was a sub-plot that needed either to be trimmed out or explained better. Otherwise, it just comes out of nowhere. My main questions — again, without spoiling anything — are: I get what the voices are, but why do they exist, and why do they latch onto that particular place? Has this happened in other places, in similar circumstances? Without those explanations, it just feels like there are one too many threads in the overall story.
- Copyeditor! Copyeditor!
I don’t know if this is only in the Kindle edition, but Book 1 had a bunch of typos that, like the cartoonish agents in Book 2, almost threw me off my reading groove for good. Like when, near the beginning of Lost Voices, Luce is talking with a “gray-Saced” man who muses that she looks tall “for a Sourteen-year-old.” Or when she observes Catarina’s eyes shining “with their stony, moon-aolored light.” Or when Catarina gives her a look that makes Luce feel like she “had said the” … Had said the what? We’re never told. We just jump to the next paragraph.
There are more examples that I’ll leave alone, but it’s seriously annoying. And this was published by one of the Big Six; you’d think there’d be someone assigned to quality-check the Kindle edition of each book. If Kindle Copyeditor isn’t a thing yet, it definitely should be.
Lost Voices was one of those books that pretty quickly convinced me I needed to own it and its sequels. The characters feel as real as friends and the conflict is realistically complex. It’s sad that the existence of mermaids on Porter’s Earth, like that of selkies in Seanan McGuire’s Fae-verse, depends on pain and loss. It could be triggery like woah for anyone who’s experienced abuse, so I don’t recommend the series to everyone. But there are joyful and wonderful parts, too, and a world made of mystical music.
And if you’re jonesing for more merfolk awesomeness, I also highly recommend A Mermaid’s Tale, a memoir by Amanda Adams, in which she discusses the influence of “mermaidenry” on her own life, and her research on the water beings of various cultures. There’s also Mermaid Tales From Around the World, in which Mary Pope Osborne adapts twelve mermaid stories and Troy Howell matches them with twelve different styles of artwork — each meant to embody the culture from which the story originated. My favorites were “Menana of the Waterfall,” “The Little Mermaid” (I like Osborne’s take on the mermaid’s relationship with the young prince, who sees her as his best friend), and “The Fish Husband” — the last of which is extremely similar to the Lithuanian folktale “Eglė, Queen of Serpents.”
You can also check out my multiple mer-related Pinterest boards.
ETA 4-16-15: Check out this interview with Sarah Porter, in which she describes what drove her to write the Lost Voices books, as well as her thoughts on fairy tales and her next works in progress.
* This info on Sedna and the rusalki comes from Amanda Adams. A Mermaid’s Tale. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2006. Chapters 5 and 7.