YA Weekend: Drown by Esther Dalseno
Publisher: 3 Little Birds Books (October 31, 2015)
Tiara’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
First of all, I have to say the cover for this book is gorgeous. With that aside, speculative YA fiction and I have a strange relationship. I’m either unmoved by much of it or I outright hate it. I can’t pinpoint why this happens since I enjoy YA books in every other genre. Exception: I enjoy YA horror more than most sci-fi and fantasy YA. However, if there is one YA genre that I seem to dislike more than the rest in the speculative vein, it’s without a doubt fantasy YA. Because of this, when I find a YA fantasy book that I enjoy, I latch on to it for dear life while reading it because I don’t know when I’ll feel so attached to another book in this genre again. And in true fashion, just like the last fantasy YA book I truly enjoyed (we’re getting to what it was), it ended with me wanting to make dying whale noises. Like who told you it was okay to mess with my feelings like that? Who gave you the right? I so mean that in the nicest way possible because I enjoyed this book:
I’m doing the Popsugar Reading Challenge again, and this book was my “A book based on a fairy tale” choice. This came to me by chance. I like imaginative retellings, and I have a ton on my TBR. As I was searching my list, Goodreads recommended this book to me because I read and enjoyed Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson (a Peter Pan retelling from Tiger Lily’s POV). I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a fantasy YA book this much since Tiger Lily, and I read that two years ago. Don’t believe me. Check any fantasy YA review I’ve written since 2013 and you’ll learn. The blurb for it caught my interest: “Seven emotionless princesses. Three ghostly sirens. A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories. A handsome, self-mutilating prince.”
Drown is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, but don’t think this follows the Disney happily-ever-after version most people have come to know. This is Hans Christian Andersen dark. The Sea King fathers seven daughters each born a year apart. Merfolk live abnormally long lives, dying at exactly 300-years-old, if nothing takes them from life sooner, and they believe this is so because they do not suffer what is called the Great Condition. Merfolk believe that only humans suffer from this condition, which is why their lifespans are so short. When children come of age within the sea kingdom, they are allowed to visit the surface and observe humans from a safe distance in the sea. It’s during this time when the Sea King’s youngest and strangest child visits the surface that she falls in love with an emotional, disturbed prince, and she decides that she will be human and win his love and a soul of her own (because merfolk believe only humans have souls, given to them by God, while merfolk are some false creation) no matter the cost… and the cost is great.
You follow the mermaid as she convinces herself that the prince loves her, that everything he does he does it because of her, for her, while knowing the truth deep in her heart. It’s an emotional journey that explores not just this romance, but the origin of the merfolk and their emotional detachment, the turbulence of new love and the honesty of enduring love, and the emotions that often lead us to make rash decisions, even as we’re warned that emotions, especially love and hate, will often deceive us. The book even starts with this warning: “We are bid to receive the ones that seek us, and grant their heart’s desire. But beware your heart’s desire, for those that seek us hide broken hearts, and broken hearts are divided. They will lie to you, they will deceive you.”
Even though this calls itself a “A Twisted Take on the Classic Fairy Tale,” if you know anything about Andersen’s fairy tales, then you know that often these stories are often bittersweet at best, and the original vision is pretty dark in its own right. In fact, this books follow so closely to the original story that it reads like Dalseno is filling out the story while managing to make it feel like a creation of her own. She makes many brilliant, intriguing changes, but if you’re expecting Disney, this isn’t it.
With that being said, this is a touch melodramatic even in its beauty and has portions that can come off silly in a dramatic way. Also, I’m not sure I particularly care for how she handled the prince’s cutting, which seemed more for convenience and to make him seem more tortured and dark. Honestly, I’m not sure I bought into the prince’s “tortured soul” as much as Dalseno wanted, but this book was 90% excellent and I overlooked the fact that I spent a good portion of this book thinking, “Shoo, prince. Get your life together, honey. Just get your life.”
The handling of the self-mutilation can seem kind of insensitive because it comes off as a superfluous device a bit. I’m sure that’s not how she meant it and others might see it differently, but trigger warning. There were other elements of the book that seemed to be in place more for convenience sake and factored into the story little once they’d serve their purpose as well. These are things that kept it from being a 5-star read for me, but it still goes on my favorites list.
In reading this book and thinking about why I enjoyed it much in the same way that I enjoyed Tiger Lily, I realize that I like this complex, lyrical, dark, magical realism style that books like these bring to the table. I enjoy the emotional, visceral journey including most of the melodrama. They’re love stories, but they’re so much more than that. The words and feelings in books like these are haunting, and the exploration of feelings and ideas are poetically moving. These are the kind of books that stay on my mind and I revisit time and time again.