I can’t say I’ve ever had the desire to read a story about mermaids. In fact, my knowledge of merfolk as Howard Parsons terms mermaids and mermen in his novel Urban Mermaid consist of a childhood toy villain, the movies Splash and then later The Little Mermaid, a brief exploration of an underwater kingdom in the later stages of World of Warcraft, and the annual mermaid parade, freak-flag extravaganza at Coney Island. Each instance with the exception of the last offered little inspiration or interest to my mind as a child, teen, young adult, and adult.
So, at the very least, I was trepidatious. As someone raised in the landlocked North, I care not for the sea. In fact, I have been caught punching the ocean. I loathe the sun and sand and water and the creatures that dwell within it. Thus, stories from the sea or about it fail to ignite my imagination.
However, that’s not to say that entertaining stories and, more importantly, fabulously fun metaphors don’t arise from it.
Urban Mermaid: Tails From Colony Island, Book One
Howard T. Parsons
Moonlight Garden Publications, 2015
I suppose that Urban Mermaid is technically a new adult novel since its main characters are freshly out of college and working their first jobs. New adult novels focus on just how one navigates a life entirely one’s own, how one lays a foundation for adulthood. This sub-genre stands in contrast to young adult books that tend to focus on the drama and melodrama of teen years. Yet I would hardly resist calling this a YA novel, simply because it is obviously written for young, casual readers that are either themselves still in their teens or college-aged looking for a piece of escapist literature.
And that’s probably the best way to approach this novel, as an escapist beach read (it is mermaids after all), “It may only be a fantasy, and a silly one at that, which would sooner or later abandon her, but for the moment, she had something to cling to.”
Working through a sort of notion of double consciousness, Parsons gives us a protagonist that is literally and figuratively caught between two worlds (sea and land) as well as split emotionally between her heart and mind. This internal conflict is manifested by a creeping voice in Penelope’s head ever pushing her towards Peter, while her reasoned self attempts to keep a safe distance. The tension of novel isn’t necessarily will the love story work out, but rather will Penelope discover and embrace who she is.
Of course, it isn’t so much the mermaid-ness that makes the story as it is the romance between worlds. The joy that Penelope finally gets to revel in when she accepts her feelings for Peter is endearing:
“Her dream was the most pleasant and comforting one she’d ever had. Penelope was in her element, being gently rocked in the arms of the sea. so warm, so enfolding, so safe. She wished Peter could be there, sharing the feeling with her.
Penelope awoke to find that Peter had been holding her while she slept. She turned her head to kiss him and soon drifted off again.”
Most certainly saccharine, but why not? There’s a huge portion of our media centered around the unapologetic enjoyment of fantasy romances, rom-coms, and quasi-racy though ultimately gender binary reinforcing tales of women trying to have it all. There’s a time (and a need) to critique these kinds of storytelling as well as a time to just enjoy a simple, guilty pleasure.
Urban Mermaid mixes the mundane and the fantastic creating a mermaid story that goes beyond mere fairytale but never abandons the charm of the genre. The couple’s meet-cute, their developing romance, and the meet-the-parents interlude leading up to the inevitable provides little in the way of surprise but never disappoints. And I enjoy how Parsons moves from Penelope’s anxiety of how to negotiate between two worlds to Peter’s anxiety about how and if to leave one for the other.
There are two major flaws in Parsons’ novel. First, it goes on for far too long given its rather thin subject matter. At over 400 pages, Urban Mermaid is often treading water and would have been a much stronger novel if cut in half. Imagine a Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy that went on for three and half hours. It wouldn’t matter how cute she was, you’d get fucking sick of it. Second, stylistically there is too much exposition and not enough action; Parsons tells and doesn’t show. The dynamic parts of the story where we see Penelope and Peter interacting (and later Penelope and her family) and can witness their joy and pain are often muted by long, unnecessary sections of narrative padding.
In future Colony Island books, I hope that Parsons finds a better balance. That said, this novel and the series could become very pleasing for young readers. Parsons creates a mer-world that we inhabit and come to feel comfortable in, one that feels real rather than contrived. For any fantasy author, that is a gift.
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This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons Rachel Racicot and Tyler Whitesides.