Killer Mermaids and Warrior Women of Color!
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, there are clearly marked spoilers towards the end of this review.)
Meela can’t remember a time when her people – the inhabitants of Eriana Kwai, a small island situated off the coast of Alaska – weren’t at war. For all of her eighteen years, The Massacre has been a yearly ritual: every May, twenty young men set sail for the Aleutian Islands, where their adversaries’ nest is believed to be located. Their objective? To slaughter as many “sea rats” as possible, in hopes of decimating their population and returning peace and prosperity to Eriana Kwai.
For the past several decades, an influx of mermaids has dominated the Pacific Ocean, consuming its sea life, attacking ships bound to and from Eriana Kwai, and occasionally even invading the island’s beaches. As a result, this formerly prosperous island has become increasingly dependent on handouts from the mainland. Its four thousand inhabitants are poor, starving, and desperate. With each year’s Massacre less successful than the last, Anyo the training master makes a bold suggestion: send young women to battle the mermaids. Unlike men, they aren’t susceptible to their supernatural charms.
Just thirteen at the time, Meela is a member of the first, experimental class of girls trained for the hunt. After five years of education in sailing, combat, and first aid, Meela and her classmates are ready – or as ready as they’ll ever be. While certain members of the Bloodhound’s crew (including Meela’s childhood tormentor, Dani) are eager for the killing to commence, Meela’s instincts vacillate between self-preservation and compassion for others; her loyalties are divided between her kin and Lysi, a mermaid she rescued and subsequently befriended when she was ten. Even though Lysi ostensibly betrayed her, Meela still has feelings for her old friend – and the bond they shared affords Meela unique insight into the species’ intelligence, behavior, and ultimately, their humanity. Meela doesn’t want to kill, and perhaps more importantly, she’s not entirely convinced that war and genocide is the only way.
And then Lysi unexpectedly reenters her life, throwing yet another wrench into Meela’s so-called destiny.
When I saw a copy of Ice Massacre up for grabs on Library Thing, I immediately requested it because HEY, MERMAIDS! And while the mermaids are pretty cool, they’re just the beginning. Ice Massacre is a wonderfully diverse read, in more ways than one. Most of the population of Eriana Kwai are people of color, with dark hair and brown skin; the few residents with blond hair and fair skin can trace their heritage back to the mainland. (As far as I can tell, the island is fictional, but I assume that the residents are primarily aboriginal, e.g. First Nations or Native American.) Meanwhile, the mermaids are mostly white, but the odd mermaid of color does make an appearance. Since nearly all of the primary, secondary, and named characters are human, people of color dominate the story. Ice Massacre passes the racialized Bechdel Test, and easily.
Ditto: the original Bechdel Test, for obvious reasons – e.g., the protagonist is a girl/young woman mostly surrounded by other girls/young women (the narrative alternates between the present-day Massacre and Meela’s childhood friendship with Lysi). Ice Massacre focuses on women and their relationships with one another, and the result is both beautiful and sometimes ugly, but always insightful and nuanced.
(Caution: thar be spoilers ahead!)
But wait! There’s more! Throughout the story, Warner drops copious hints that Meela and Lysi’s friendship is more complex – and more transgressive – than either girl realizes. It begins fairly early on, with Meela contemplating a life in the sea. Occasionally, mermaids are known to turn sailors into mermen with a kiss; at her urging, Lysi attempts to turn Meela, but of course nothing comes of it, as she hasn’t yet grown into her adult powers.
After their friendship dissolves, the girls go on to form tentative relationships with boys; but try as she might, Meela just can’t picture herself marrying her handsome friend/suitor Tanuu and having his children. She loves Tanuu, but not in the same way that her friends love their boyfriends and fiancés. Her best human friend, Annith, insists that Meela will ‘just know it’ when she finally falls in love. And, by story’s end, Meela discovers what the audience suspected all along: “I[‘m] in love with a mermaid.”
I worried from the start that these breadcrumbs were just a tease, that Warner would eventually backtrack from the implied lesbian romance – but thankfully, it was all for naught. I cannot tell you how happy the ending made me. Even more so because the book’s synopsis doesn’t even hint at this gay-friendly subplot – instead, it came as a pleasant surprise.
The result is an incredibly fun and progressive play on Romeo & Juliet, where the feuding families encompass entire species and the star-crossed lovers are two young women on opposite sides of the human-animal divide. While I love the book’s diversity, the plot also stands on its own. I read Ice Massacre compulsively from start to finish; it’s the kind of story the pulls you in and just doesn’t let go. It also broaches some tough and timely questions about war and peace; dehumanizing and objectifying the “other”; colonization and nation-building; and the effect of violence on young minds.
Now for what didn’t work for me (and this is a fairly minor quibble): the Bloodhound crew is a rather sorry army. They’re adept fighters, but kind of suck as a team. As soon as they’re away from adult supervision, a few of the girls start playing a game, and lose some of their ammo in the process. (Remember too that their island is impoverished; no doubt these items came at a great cost, perhaps in lieu of food to feed their families.) After their captain is killed in battle, there’s a mutiny against the next girl in line; for most of the trip, Dani and Meela lead two competing crews. One girl carries a stuffed animal with her; Meela often hesitates before shooting her crossbow. Dani proves to be a sociopath.
Clearly Anyo should have started with a larger class and culled the weaker students from the crew; not all these girls are cut out to be warriors. The crew lacks cohesion and discipline, which plays to the mermaids’ advantage. I just cannot imagine any real army functioning this way (though some of the discord is clearly necessary to the plot).
The story ends on a cliffhanger, so it’s likely that Ice Massacre is the first book in a series.
Read it if you like: mermaids; pirates; same-sex love stories; protagonists of color; badass women; diverse books.