A solid sequel with a thrilling cliffhanger.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for ICE MASSACRE, the first book in the series.)
“So you’re willing to send a girl out to fight for our people,” I said, “but you’re not willing to listen to what she has to say?”
“Start a family,” I muttered. “They’ve got a shock coming if that’s what they’re expecting.”
I fell head over heels (tail?) in love with the world and characters and subversive romance Tiana Warner created in Ice Massacre, and have been eagerly awaiting the sequel ever since. (1 year, 9 months, and 8 days, to be precise.) I had nearly given up when Ice Crypt hit my radar.
The story picks up a mere two weeks after the events in Ice Massacre. The crew of the Bloodhound has returned home to Eriana Kwai, battered and bloody and minus many girls – but triumphant, all things considered. (The men don’t typically come back at all.) With Lysi now King Adaro’s captive, Meela is hell-bent on finding the mysterious Host of Eriana. But, instead of turning it over to the power-hungry dictator, Meela plans to double-cross Adaro and maybe harness its power to destroy him? The plan’s pretty sketchy, seeing as she doesn’t know what the Host is or how to find it or whether it even exists.
And the Massacre Committee’s no help: in Meela’s month-long absence, her beloved mentor Anyo was ousted – in favor of Dani’s father Mujihi, no less. An abusive bully, it’s plain to see where Dani gets her mean streak. Rather than being jailed for her war crimes, Dani is made an instructor at the training camp. Now she yields power over a hundred girls instead of just twenty, and Dani (and her father) are loathe to give it up by ending the Massacres. Add the island’s speciesism towards the mermaids (“sea rats,” demons, vermin) and their skepticism of once-sacred creation myths to the mix, and the only ones interested in brokering a peace deal with the mermaids are Meela and her friends Tanuu, Annith, and Blacktail. But what match are four teenagers against the world – on land and in the sea?
Making matters infinitely worse, the timeline for the annual Massacre has been upended. Rather than wait until next May, Mujihi plans to send out the next ship in a matter of weeks. A battered ship and a crew of under-prepared girls: what could possibly go wrong?
There are some things I loved about Ice Crypt, and some things that left me feeling underwhelmed. Amazon and Goodreads give wildly different page counts (334 vs. 426) but, however long it is, the story drags a bit in the first half. The story is told from Meela and Lysi’s alternating perspectives, which I love. (Meela’s odd chapters are decorated with a tree, while Lysi gets the even numbers and a clam. So cute! It’s the little flourishes.) But they spend most of the story apart, working within their respective worlds to bring an end to the hunt, which is a bummer. (Their limited scenes together, not the peace-making!) It’s not until around the 80% mark that they get some screen time together, but it is worth the wait. Some VERY GOOD and VERY BAD things happen, and you will have ALL SORTS OF FEELINGS.
While I loved experiencing the underwater world through Lysi’s eyes and ears and skin – her ability to navigate and perceive the world via echolocation and electrolocation is just fascinating, and in the vein of Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North and Charles Foster’s Being a Beast – the mermen are mostly underwhelming. After being taken prisoner, Lysi’s many escape attempts are thwarted and eventually punished by being sent to war – not at the surface, like she’s been trained, but underwater, with the mermen. She finds an ally in her old school chum, Spio, and is drafted into the resistance. While her inner circle is mostly chill, the other mermen are just ew. I think they were there for a bit of comic relief, but mostly they just fall flat. Leave it to a Nice Guy ™ to muck things up though.
Probably my biggest issue is one that’s mostly beyond the author’s control: the initial thrill of discovery I felt in the first book has cooled somewhat. Even so, it’s an enjoyable read; some parts had me glued to my Kindle and, even if my attention wandered a bit in the middle, I’m still glad I read it.
Like Ice Massacre, Ice Crypt ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, all but promising a third book in the series. (I hope it’s a trilogy; any longer, and it might feel unnecessarily drawn out.) Given the multiple surprise twists that Warner throws in at the last minute, I can’t wait to see where the story takes us next!
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! In the first book, Ice Massacre, Warner established that 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. At the time, I speculated that, while the island is fictional, the residents were most likely First Nations or Native American. In Ice Crypt, we actually get a map, where Eriana Kwai is placed off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, not too far from Alaska. The island’s history/myth says that the island’s mother/goddess/first settler, Eriana, immigrated from Russia, Japan, or possibly Alaska.
While many of the mermaids who live in the Pacific sea are light-skinned, during Lysi’s travels with her King’s army, we find that mermaids live all over the globe, and are not confined to the Pacific ocean. Just as with humans, there are ethnic and cultural differences; for example, as they approach the coast of South America, Lysi is startled to find mermaids who are more tanned than she, sport brightly colored jewels in their hair, and speak a human language other than Eriana (Spanish). Even among the mermaids, there is some racial diversity. Also, some mermaids are made, not born, and it’s safe to assume that they retain their skin tone, hair color and texture, and other defining characteristics, at least for the females (the males are unable to switch back and forth between mermaid and human forms; presumably their skin is always green-blue), if only on the upper halves of their bodies.
Coho’s wife Ephyra, for example, is described as having dark skin – or at least darker than Lysi.
Additionally, mermaid hunter Meela is in love with Lysi, a mermaid she rescued from a fishing net as a kid. The two formed a strong but illicit friendship, visiting each other on the beach by Meela’s home, until her father spotted them and, thinking that Meela was under attack, shot Lysi with an iron bolt. The two reunited when Meela was 18 and sent to sea as part of the island’s annual mermaid hunt. In the second book in the series, the two share precious few scenes, as they each work with their people to try and forge a peace between humans and mermaids. By story’s end, though, Meela has come out to her friends and family: first as a lesbian (or at least a young woman who’s in love with another young woman) and as a human who loves a mermaid – and then as a mermaid herself, as Lysi had to kiss and turn Meela in order to save her life.
Anyo suffers from anxiety and depression after he’s fired as trainer for the Massacre; his daughter, Adette, is a current trainee.
Dani’s father Mujihi abuses her.
Animal-friendly elements: Tiana Warner describes herself as a supporter of animal welfare, and the Mermaids of Eriana Kwai definitely has a strong animal welfare bent. For example, in the very first scene of Ice Crypt, we watch as Meela cimbs a tree in order to return a fallen owlet to her nest.
While the people of Eriana Kwai hunt and fish (or did, before the mermaids claimed the ocean), it’s framed as subsistence hunting. Living on an island, separated from/dependent on the mainland, and faced with poverty and starvation, the Erianans must consume animals to survive. However, gratuitous killing is frowned upon. Some of the island’s artifacts are decorated with a snake head, “an ancient symbol once used by hunters to show their remorse for killing.” Tanuu and Blacktail clash over hunting laws – which Blacktail’s father enforces and Tanuu’s father broke – and the disagreement comes to a head when Annith stumbles into a bear trap – a pit dug into the ground and covered up with debris, some which impales Annith’s limbs.
Probably the most animal-friendly message comes in the form of the mermaids. When Meela tries to broker a peace deal between the humans and the mermaids, she hits a wall with her community, which has collectively convinced itself that mermaids are unintelligent, devoid of emotions, and generally “less than.” They are “demons” and “sea rats,” vermin not worthy of living. Any evidence of their sentience, such as war strategy, is dismissed outright. You can’t reason with a mermaid, and you certainly can’t form a relationship with one. In a word, humans “other” the mermaids to justify their decades-long war with them.
Meela, who’s kind and compassionate, sees the mermaids for what they are: people. She doggedly insists that “Human deaths aren’t the only tragic ones!” and tries desperately to save Lysi, her childhood friend with whom she’s fallen hopelessly in love. When pushed to the edge, she comes out – as gay and a mermaid-lover – to her friends and family, even though she might be disowned – or killed – for the transgression.
Ice Crypt is told from both Meela and Lysi’s POVs, in alternating chapters, so we also get a glimpse of the mermaids’ attitudes toward the creatures with whom they share the sea. While the mermaids are also omnivores, Lysi acknowledges the sentience of both fishes and animals; she speaks of feeling their auras and sussing out their emotions. Adaro uses animals – dolphins, sharks, manta rays – in battle, but Lysi plays games with wild dolphins and teaches them tricks. When her friend and ally Spio needs to gather some bait to lure the sharks to Adaro, he cuts himself rather than bleed a dolphin: “That’s just mean.” Of course, there are also dead fish parts in the bag, so there’s a hierarchy at play even down under.
Eriana Kwai’s creation myth tells of a young woman, Eriana, who had the ability to speak to animals. One especially harsh winter, when her people were faced with starvation, they persuaded Eriana to call a herd of caribou to the village and sacrifice themselves. Enraged that Eriana had “upset the natural order” and abused her gift – which was meant to foster peace between humans and nonhumans – the goddess Gaela visited a great ice storm upon the village, killing everyone save for Eriana. Instead of striking Eriana down, Death made a bargain with her. A great, two-headed serpent roamed the earth, and her destructive powers rivaled that of Death himself. Since he could not kill the leviathan, he bound Eriana to her. In exchange for her life, Eriana promised to control the leviathan, in isolation on Eriana Kwai. Upon her death, Eriana was made a goddess in order to maintain control over the beast.