Review: The Seafarer's Kiss by Julia Ember
content note: discussion of rape, trans misogyny, violence against trans people
I was incredibly excited when I heard about "The Seafarer's Kiss" by Julia Embers - it seemed like everything I love. It was a fairy tale retelling. It was told from the point of view of the traditional villain in that tale, and it was going to be queer and it was going to have a character that uses they/them pronouns. In case you missed it, I am queer and non-binary, and my pronouns are fey/fem/feir/feirs/femself, just like they/them/their but with an 'f' - so I was so ready for a book with someone who seemed like me, multiple someones, perhaps!
I was excited because the author is bi, like me. The author is polyamorous, like me. And from reviews of the authors other work, "Unicorn Tracks", it seemed as though the author really cared about getting representation right. I was very sorely disappointed and hurt by this book.
It started out very, very good. We meet Ersel, a mermaid who lives in an ice glacier somewhere near Norway, and who is very upset by the upcoming Grading. In the world Ersel lives in, mermaids are judged based on how fertile they are. At 19 years old they take part in a ritual to determine their fertility, and are then coerced into choose a mate. Once mated, many of these young women are confined to the darkness and spend the rest of their lives laying eggs. It's pretty patriarchal, and the reader immediately identifies with Ersels desire for a different future. Ersel, like many YA lady protagonists, declares herself not like the other girls a ton during this exposition on her plight. Many other mermaids of Ersel's age are shown taking care of themselves in an effort to increase their fertility, including Vigdis, who is sometimes cruel to Ersel.
One of Ersel's "not like the other girls" characteristics is that she explores shipwrecks, and steals treasures from them and hides them in her cave in their ice home. Her best friend, Havamal, used to go with her, but since he joined the King's Guard, he has been busy. He also believes he is now grown up, and doesn't need the childhood fantasy they used to share of running away. He chides Ersel for her continued desire to escape their patriarchal king and her ongoing searches of the water tombs of humans.
When the Grading happens, it turns out Ersel is incredibly fertile, probably the most fertile mermaid their clan has seen. They need to reproduce, as their clan is dying out. It also turns out that she was born in the season of Loki, something she hadn't really considered or known before. In a cruel twist of irony, Vigdis is not fertile, despite all her attempts. Vigdis is crushed, forlorn, and despondent by this news.
Everything changes when Ersel happens upon a stranded shield maiden, Ragna, trapped on the ice. Ersel decides to help this human, and brings her food, wood of sunken ships, and helps keep her warm so that Ragna can fix the lifeboat she escaped the sinking ship on and sail back home. Ragna was stolen from her village as a gift for someone else, and she intends to find this someone else and extract revenge. Ersel identifies with Ragna's desire for freedom, and the two share a very cute moment. The cuteness doesn't last as Ersel is caught by Havamal, who threatens to report her to the king. He is a huge asshole, telling her he will spare Ragna's life if Ersel agrees to be his mate.
Feeling trapped and hopeless, she is confronted by Loki. Loki offers her a wish if she obtains a mermaids voice for them. Ember's version of Loki is genderfluid, or non-binary, and uses they them pronouns. The genderfluidity is true to the myth, even if the pronouns are not. Anyone familiar with Norse mythology would also know that Loki is the trickster god. Ember stays true to this, and Loki is not to be trusted. But she takes it further than just trickster and into evil. Ersel makes a deal anyways. Ersel finds Vigdis, and tells her that if she gives up her voice, she can have the fertility she wants. Vigdis agrees, and asks for a mate, too. Ersel takes the voice back to Loki, and asks for legs.
Loki grants her legs, but they are not the legs of a human that Ersel had imagined, but instead the legs of an octopus. And Vigdis? A mate in the form of a monster comes for her, and she does indeed become pregnant, and later dies from the pregnancy. Ersel is expelled from her clan, and forced to live elsewhere, making her own way and getting her own food.
When Loki visits her again, she strikes another deal, this time trying to outsmart the trickster god. At this point, I was incredibly upset. The only character who seemed to not be a binary cis person was Loki. Loki had been cruel, deceitful, and their actions had resulted in what I would consider to be rape. The monster that had come for Vigdis had originally come in the form of a handsome merman, and she consented to that intercourse. But then the creature had changed, and she was distraught to find herself deceived. The resulting pregnancy was not a normal occurance for merfolk, the pregnancy was like that of a mammal, and her body was not equipped for it. She and the fetus she carried died during delivery.
Loki laughed at this, and Loki laughed at this while using Vigdis's voice. Loki's own voice had been sealed by Thor, and they needed to steal other voices to be able to communicate. I was very sickened by what Loki was doing, and I believe that was the point. The readers are supposed to be upset, Loki is a villain, and villains need to be evil. What Loki did was beyond a moral event horizon for most people on this Earth. This would have been good storytelling, this would have been good villain writing if Loki wasn't a trans non-binary person. If Loki wasn't the only trans person, the only non-binary person, in the novel.
Ersel goes on to make another deal with Loki, and we learn that the creature that they had set upon Vigdis had once been a human, and Loki had transformed them into a monster and took away their free will. There is a hard to read conversation where this creature explains that during this time, he becomes a passive observer of what Loki is using their body for, but sometimes he enjoys it. This is a pretty nuanced character, where we see how badly he has been abused, and how some part of him is in conflict over how he feels when this happens. His body had been used by Loki to rape Vigdis, and he was conflicted about if the monstrosity was inside him all along, or if that was something that Loki had put inside of him. I both hated and pitied him, and Ersel granted him freedom in death. I was pretty impressed with how well that scene was handled, and I had hopes that my discomfort with how Loki was being handled would end up being righted, and Ember would grant nuance to Loki.
I was wrong. Loki tries very hard for much the rest of the novel to out-trick Ersel, going so far as to say they invented lying, they invented deception. At about 80%, Ersel finishes her last bargain with Loki, having done some pretty amoral things to get there. With the help of her mother, she is able to get her mermaid form back, and she is able to transform herself into a human, or take on her octopus-like form, too. Loki gives her the information she needs to take down the patriarchal tyrant and then departs. We don't see them again. The remaining 20% of the book is a pretty great plot to overthrow the patriarchy, which I am always down for, but I couldn't enjoy it. I was too hurt by how Loki had been handled.
I know the author is bi, and I want to believe her intentions were good, that she was trying to add diversity to her book. I don't know if she had sensitivity readers for Loki, and if she did, I don't know what they said. They might have liked the portrayal for all I know. But I was hurt. Trans people are currently cast in our society as liars, deceivers, con artist who lie about their gender in order to trick people. We are cast as villains trying to trick our way into spaces that aren't ours, like bathrooms. "Trans panic", in which a cis person, usually a man, finds out that the woman he is dating is trans and murders her, is a defense that has been held up in a court of law. You can claim "trans panic" and not get sentenced to prison for murder. And this defense works because it relies on the falsity that trans people are tricksters, liars, masters of deception and that this deception is so heinous that a citizen can act as judge, jury and executioner.
This book has one trans character, and that character is literally the inventor of lying. The god of deception. The master of deceit. Can you see how this is harmful? Can you see how this perpetuates false, negative stereotypes about trans people? How this reinforces the narrative that society has crafted about us?
Furthermore, Loki is genderqueer, non binary, genderfluid. We are further marginalized for this refusal to be inside the gender binary. We are doing it for attention, we are making it up, we are not "right" - we get mocked with phrases like "I identify as an attack helicopter," we can't even change our gender markers in most places. To have the only non-binary character in your book be a liar is not helping to dispel any of these sentiments about us.
There is so little representation of genderqueer, non-binary people in books, especially in YA. I was trying to think of positive examples of this done right after someone on twitter asked me for recommendations. I've been through this before, I am bi, and I spent so much time trying to track down books with a bi protagonist. Or any bi people at all. I had so few examples when I was growing up. I am so glad to see there is now a great selection of YA books with bi protagonists. But options for enby's are few and far between.
With so little representation, I think it was incredibly harmful. I believe a second enby character in this book, one who was positive and good and whom the reader knew had a moral compass, would have gone a long way towards allowing Loki to be complicated, messy, villainous, without unintentionally tying their evilness to their genderqueerness. Maybe in the future every book will have enbies in them, and we can have full on evil enbies because being enby is just accepted and of course enbies aren't a monolith. But without the good enbies saving the world in YA to counterbalance the bad enbies wrecking shit in YA, I can't find a way to see anything in Loki but a harmful propagation of stereotypes.
And I want to be perfectly clear, I am not hurt by Loki being the villain. I am hurt by the way that villainy is portrayed. If Loki was not a god of lies and deception and trickery, I think this would have been a very different review. I am hurt by the fact that we have scarcely any positive representation at all and that this was sold as positive representation.
Finally, this book had some great cis bi, lesbian, queer woman rep. It was really cute, and really fun. But no amount of really good, really positive cis queer rep can make a really bad portrayal of a trans enby justified.
A few other things I wanted to point out that irked me a bit about this, and makes me leery to rec it to others. First, the main couple physically assault each other, and it felt really unnecessary. It felt out of place. The dialogue was conveying the conflict in view points between the two, there was no reason that I could see for their conflict to escalate to physical violence. The fact that neither apologizes for hitting the other, and that a very short amount of time later, they were back to being incredibly cute, felt like the violence was normative and ok. It wasn't.
Second, I mentioned the not like other girls thread earlier. It does end up resolving with "all the other girls felt just as trapped as you did," but it definitely could have been more explored as to how Ersel felt when realizing that. The start of the book was so heavy on this, and it felt like an afterthought at the end.
And finally, at the end, when they are confront one of the villains, Ersel comments that she used to think this particular villain was handsome, but now she can see his pockmarked face and "maybe the cruelty inside him was beginning to show on the outside." I really hate this line. Can we not equate beauty with goodness? This seems to undo all the work that was done for the previous 90% of the novel in showing that Ersel's kraken form was not a reflection of what was inside.