Reviewed in the United States on August 11, 2014
Review of Mermaids by Lucy Middlemass, Simon Paul Wilson, Evangeline Jennings, Fiona Haven, Pippa Whitethorn, C. J. O’Shea, and T. S. W. Sharman
Like Heathers, the first Young Adult fiction collection from the Pankhearst Writers Collective, Mermaids is a themed set of stories by different authors. This time out, a more detailed theme leads to closer connections among the stories so that Mermaids is nearly a collaborative novel. (Or rather, the first volume; volume 2, “Moremaids,” will follow soon). Each author was provided the same large setting – a world like ours that has suffered a catastrophic, worldwide flood – and created teenage characters who survive the disaster, endure the aftermath, or live with a watery reality that is the only world they’ve ever known. Small details, such as the name of a ship or mention of Chinese pirates, connect the stories even more closely, while allowing each author an individual voice. This variety of voices on a common dystopian theme results in a lively and ultimately hopeful collection of stories with a large cast of strong, resilient young characters.
“Our Russian Soldiers, ” a novella by Lucy Middlemass, opens the collection and is full of gritty, real-world horrors that would occur in such a flood in our modern world, as well as surprises that upend assumptions about characters and where the story is headed. It features the children of a latter-day Noah who had enough advance notice of the coming disaster to save his family. The parents try to protect the younger girl, Leah, from witnessing the cruelties necessary for her survival in this new world, but her older sister Hannah takes in everything and resents her sister’s protracted innocence – but doesn’t shy from protecting her when their parents are lost and the girls must go on in the company of a pair of escaped prisoners.
“Sea Monsters” by Simon Paul Wilson takes the form of an urban-legend-style horror story, in which the horror is related by someone who heard it from someone else. The narrator is a probably-orphaned teenage Thai girl, Mai Noi, living with her sister Nok on an artificial island of boats rafted together, about a year after the flood. She tries to comfort her sister’s fears by assuring her that mermaids and monsters aren’t real – but learns from a solitary Japanese sailor that maybe monsters do exist, in us.
“Deepwater,” a novella by Evangeline Jennings, is set sixty-seven years after the flood, in an empire of platforms, oil rigs, and warships. The Class of Sixty-seven is about to graduate into their adult careers and Tilly should have it good – she’s a descendant of the founder, daughter of the current Chairman, and nearly a shoo-in to win the big race on graduation day. Instead of celebrating, she’s planning her eventual escape from what she has discovered is an oppressive regime.
“Land” by Fiona Haven is told from the point of view of Ethan, a teenage misfit who is more interested in books, calculations, and the land under the waves than in whaling or the other practical jobs on his raft-home of Meadows. (I found lovable his tendency to get distracted by calculating the volume of a whale, or how thick the land would have to be to hold up a stone tower). He finds a sympathetic co-conspirator in the drunken Flint, and by the end of the story, they are preparing for what can only be called a grand quest.
“Redeemeer” by Pippa Whitethorn opens with an epic first kiss during a thunderstorm and goes on to consider young love complicated by more than just separation. Protagonist Nat learns that he and the other scavengers of Angra are not only of little value to their corporate overlords, but may actually be seen as a threat to be removed. The final scene of sacrifice and redemption is set appropriately on a familiar landmark, now almost entirely underwater.
“Beyond the Water” by C. J. O’Shea follows Ellie, the privilege daughter of the Captain of the Castle, on her fifteenth birthday as she gradually reveals to her bodyguard, Tori, her reasons for wanting to die. Tori’s willingness to listen without judgment and to be vulnerable herself give Ellie a reason to go on living.
The final story (and my personal favorite), “Epwa” by T. S. W. Sharman, rounds out the collection with a tale set centuries after the initial disaster – long enough that fragments of Catholic doctrine have been folded into newer mythology to explain the only reality the people of the floating Epwa have every known. These imagined elements give the story the flavor of a folk tale. Science and history alike have been lost; only the reviled, heretical pilot has any idea of where they came from or why they row. Hannah must choose her adult work and a mate when the moons cross, but she’s not good at anything and doesn’t like most of her options for a mate. In the end, she helps create a new way for herself and the whole community, and there is hope of a more enlightened age.
In spite of the extreme circumstances, all the teenage characters in Mermaids come across as real. They have little or no power; terrible things happen to them, and sometimes they do terrible things in order to survive. But survive they do, stronger, cannier, and perhaps capable of making their dystopia a little less “dys.” Another winner from Pankhearst.
Full disclosure: as one of the authors in the second volume of this collection, I received an advance review copy of Mermaids.