This review contains spoilers.
Let’s get the stigma issue out of the way first. When some people hear “Young Adult fiction” or “mermaid fiction” they immediately decide that neither of those things are for them. Young Adult is sometimes construed as fiction that is dumbed down, for teens, and mermaid fiction is sometimes construed as likely being mushy underwater fantasy.
This book very well could have been either of those things – and I did tread with trepidation and anticipation of the above, when first picking up this book – but thankfully, it is neither. Catherine Jones Payne’s debut is directed at youths, but it doesn’t condescend or pander down to them. Instead its full of surprisingly mature decisions and politically oriented content.
Equally, it’s very far from a romance novel. There is some romance present, but it is limited, stifled by other characters and thankfully doesn’t act as the main pivot of the story at all. It’s a small burgeoning romance that feels real and appropriately placed, rather than being mushy drivel designed to pluck at the emotions of teens.
The thing that drew me into giving this novel a chance, which might be the same lure for you, is the stunning cover art. It’s a truly gorgeous depiction of a mermaid, in pastel colours and elegant tones. It’s the mark of a great publisher – someone who went out of their way to hire a truly exceptional artist to make certain that this book has a noticeable cover and therefore a better chance of being noticed. I think the book will garner a lot of sales off of that cover alone.
I don’t think the quality of the novel lives up the glory of that cover, in all honesty, but the book did exceed my expectations for a YA mermaid novel. So if the cover lures in readers, they will come away both mildly disappointed that the book didn’t reflect the beauty and grandeur of the cover, but mostly glad that they read the book because overall it’s a very satisfying read.
The first few chapters don’t do a great deal to charm the reader. This is because Payne makes a fair few mistakes, in my opinion, which could easily put off some before they get into the meat of the novel. This is a city set at the bottom of an ocean. With that comes a lot of potential inaccuracies when trying to adapt above-world writing for under the ocean life.
I think lines like ‘darkness had begun to descend on the city’ or ‘marking the years’ (this city is presumably so deep that it would never see daylight) are forgivable and necessary errors. Payne could have opted for her characters holding night vision, but I understand the need for the normality of days and nights. The Little Mermaid similarly used bright daylight.
The errors that I don’t think are forgivable are those that revolve around physics or everyday motions, because with a little extra thought, these could have been easily avoided. These include Payne writing that mer (mermaid) characters are ‘walking’ – ‘so she walked’, ‘I ran straight into’ or worst of all: ‘shifted her weight from foot to foot’ – while at other times using the correct approach that her characters are ‘swimming’, ‘diving’, ‘twirling’.
You’ll also find a moment where a character throws a ring at a wall. If you try to throw anything underwater, it won’t travel very far, let alone with force into a wall, unless there is some real power behind it. Thankfully, these errors only occur frequently towards the start of the book. It’s as if someone forgot to edit that initial portion with any real attention. After that, the rest of the book walks this line rather well.
While Payne sometimes falls down on the above, she more than makes up for it her wonderfully creative ocean language. A few of the best examples of these include ‘depths’ being used as a curse word (the depths are a scary place, so I can see how this would happen), ‘to address the blue whale in the room’, which is charming twist on the elephant saying, and my personal favourite: ‘he can sink under the weight of his own beard’, as a curse.
It all adds a real charm to the narrative. As does Payne’s sporadic teasing mythology. Every now and then she will make mention of web-footed dragons (which are implied as being mythical, but I’m hoping they are not), or kelpies perhaps not being real, or the mythology represented and imbued in statues, or expelling someone ‘to the current of the fountains of the deep’.
That’s the sort of unique and clever writing that really makes me want to keep reading this Broken Tides series, in the hope that Payne will tackle some of those teased locations. I would love to see Jade venture into the fountains of the deep, for example, and for her to eventually come across a web-footed dragon. Ocean mythology is the most exciting kind of mythology for me personally, so there’s a lot of potential here.
The fact that Jade has her own wild but loyal dolphin (Kiki) makes me certain that future instalments in this series will see her venture off into the unknown ocean, just as she nearly did this time around. Hopefully to eventually come into contact with the Overlanders too – who are very clearly the humans in this world (who aren’t off to a great moral start, given that they buy naiad girls, presumably for slavery or worse).
The name choices also show some careful research on Payne’s part. Thessalonike – the city here – was a Macedonian Princess and also a Greek legend about a mermaid who lived in the Aegean for hundreds of years. Equally, the name Alexander bears strong relevance to that Greek fable.
The crux of the narrative though, centres around one mermaid’s inherent need to do the right thing by others. The narrative turns and the decisions that Jade faces and makes are surprisingly mature, for a YA novel. When it there is even the slight chance that a decision of her own might hurt a good person in some way, Jade opts against it, even at the cost of her own happiness.
At one point Jade’s lover Alexander is bold enough to label this as a ‘martyr complex’ and he’s right. But it’s an admirable complex to have, nonetheless, because – as he realises too – it comes from a genuine place of goodness within Jade. The maturity is present in other character too, such as Alexander when he tells Jade to make up with Rhea – a mer who betrayed Jade mid-trial – because it is the right thing to do.
That aforementioned trial is a core pivotal moment for the novel, which makes the book read more like a court drama than any mermaid fantasy. Add to this the exploration class division between the mers and the naiads, the hints of revolution and rebellion in the streets and the idea that even the king has his hand forced at times, and you’re left with a novel that’s really quite heavy on politics and morality, and it’s really nice to see that as the focus.
This is a novel with hints of greatness (the mythology, the maturity, the politics), which is let down a little by some basic dialogue and some aggravating writing inconsistencies. I think, had this novel left Thessalonike – which I think will happen in later instalments – then it would have achieved far more than it ultimately did. But as an introductory piece alone, it works.
Three stars shouldn’t be construed as anything other than a solid recommendation. I think it would be well worth your time to invest in these characters and this series, because I think Payne as the potential to deliver quite excellent sequels down the line, if she leans into the mythology a little harder, while retaining her strong moral compass.
Breakwater is available to buy now.
Image credits: Fathom Ink Press, Catherine Jones Payne